Verisimilitude: The Word of the Month

I recently read an old post in a writers’ forum where someone used the term ‘verisimilitude’.  As I was only mostly sure that I knew what it meant, I looked it up in my trusty dictionary.  (I love checking definitions anyway, and do it quite often; I imagine that most people who are passionate about words find dictionary reading rewarding — and sometimes just plain fun.)

Verisimilitude: 1. The quality of appearing to be true or real.  2. Something that has the appearance of being true and real.

When I read this, it struck me that this should be a highly significant word in my vocabulary, because verisimilitude is a huge part of what I’ve always wanted to achieve with my own writing — even when I started that first novel when I was eleven years old.

Interestingly enough, the word had come up in the forum in reference to Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite authors.  (I often call him my ‘second favorite author’ after Le Guin.  And it’s thanks to her blurb on the front cover of a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer, which I stumbled on at a book sale, that I discovered him — I doubt I would have picked the book up otherwise; from that experience I’ve concluded that endorsements by other authors can be very important!)

In any case, I couldn’t find the same post in the forum when I went back to look for it, but the gist of it was that someone cited Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun as an example of a novel that doesn’t have much of a plot.  And someone else pointed out that it isn’t a matter of lacking a plot, it’s just not a straightforward plot that’s all on the surface — instead, these are the kind of books you can reread multiple times and understand more with each reading.  There are characters, incidents and details that are there to add depth more than to ‘advance the story’.  And somewhere in the discussion, it was brought up that what Wolfe is doing with all of these details and events that aren’t fully explained — or that don’t seem necessary to the main story arc — is creating verisimilitude.

Gene Wolfe’s gift for achieving verisimilitude is one of the things I love most about his books.  (That and the fact that the writing itself is drop-dead gorgeous!)  It’s that sense of depth in the world he transports you to: the feeling that the place is full of complex history and politics; cultures, subcultures and belief systems; life forms and technologies — all hinted at but often not explained.  This is exactly how we experience real life.  Since it’s impossible to know everything, most of us have a sense that our world is a place of enormous complexity, and we accept that there are many things going on in it that we’ll never understand, and things that exist that we only have a vague idea about — or are completely unaware of.

In many ways I’m obsessed with realism.  Though I enjoy other kinds of art — most of Van Gogh’s paintings really strike a chord with me, for example — when I was a child and dreamed of being a skilled artist, the style I admired most was realism.  I remember being very impressed with the kind of paintings that make you do a ‘double take’ and look closely to determine whether the picture is a painting or a photograph.

When it comes to writing, I believe one of the important differences between creating literature — whether short fiction or a novel — and just telling a story around the campfire is that in literature you’re recreating the experience of life, not just relaying a ‘this happened, then that happened’ kind of narrative.  The specific details and layers of depth that make the world of the story — and what the character is experiencing in that world — as real as possible are elements I absolutely love as a reader and, consequently, elements I strive to use effectively as a writer.

Obviously, there are some things you can overdo.  My father studied with Ivor Winters, and we’ve discussed his ‘ fallacy of imitative form’.  I believe Winters was talking particularly about poetry, but the concept can be used for prose as well.  Essentially, when you create art you have to give it structure, rather than just writing down exactly how you think and feel in a kind of chaotic stream of consciousness, and then refusing to alter it, claiming that because it’s ‘real’ it should be the best way to relate those feelings.  But when something in a work of art is an exact imitation of real life, it may be so overwhelming or confusing it doesn’t actually communicate what the artist is trying to convey.  In fiction, dialogue can be an example of this.  The way some people talk would be awkward and annoying if their speech were transcribed exactly as spoken.

However, I still feel that good dialogue in fiction is ninety to ninety-five percent the same as real dialogue.  That is, you should be able to keep most of it the same as real speech, and just cut out some of the repetitions, false starts, or awkward changes of direction in midsentence, as well as things like ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’.  And yet there are even exceptions to that.  One character in Gene Wolfe’s other epic tetralogy, Book of the Long Sun, is distinguished by his speech mannerisms — specifically, by the way he frequently starts to use one word, then changes his mind and chooses another.  That’s an example of ‘breaking the rules’ to use a realistic quirk that adds depth to a character.

It’s often said that a writer doing revisions should consider each scene and ask the question: Does it advance the plot or develop the character?  If the answer is no, that passage should be cut.  (Sometimes ‘developing the theme’ is also included as a viable justification for inclusion.)  So I’ve decided I’m going to modify those guidelines to say that everything that belongs in a story must either:  A) Advance the plot; B) Develop the characters or the theme; or C) Create verisimilitude.

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