Verisimilitude: a Steampunk Perspective

Image from the websiteImage from tumblr of Victorian-era cosplay

Can I share a secret with you? When I first heard the word verisimilitude, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. My lecturer mentioned the word in an introductory lecture, and I had to rush off after class to find out a definition. I was surprised to find it meant ‘the appearance or semblance of truth’, since the class I was taking was about writing fiction. Then I discovered it had a different meaning in the field of literature, and that it meant ‘internal consistency’. What it boils down to … does your story, characters and setting have an authenticity of their own? Or is there a jarring lack of logic that will push the reader out of the story?

Achieving verisimilitude is a writing skill that can only come with practice, and lots and lots of reading. It isn’t just about getting the details right, but it is about building a quilt of details to form a picture and not a mess. Do the characters sit comfortably within the setting? Is the setting appropriate to the plot? Is the plot suited to the characters? If any of these questions give you an answer of ‘no’, them you are lacking in verisimilitude, and there is a good chance your audience with be alienated by the clash of inconsistency.

Take, for an example, the differences between the illustration and the photograph above. The feet and ankles of the illustration are much, much smaller and slender compared to the feet of the woman in the photograph. Now, those slender drawn feet are very decorative, but if real-life girl had those feet, she would snap an ankle when attempting to walk or dance. That is the perfect metaphor for verisimilitude; your details have to support the story.

This doesn’t mean you can’t give your imagination full rein while writing.  Jules Verne’s fantastic tales are believable only with a suspension of belief. But all the elements that make up Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea fit together to create a tightly structured net of plot, characterization and setting that completely captures the reader’s imagination. As Captain Nemo prefers to use products only from the sea, it would break verisimilitude if he were suddenly to develop a passion for beef in red wine, rather than fish and seaweed dishes.

Verisimilitude takes work. But putting the effort into achieving it means that you have constructed a world that keeps your audience seeped in your narrative. The paradox of verisimilitude is that if you do it really well, the audience won’t even notice. This is one of those phenomenon where non-writers look at something well written and think “That looks so easy to do,” because the writing seems so natural and effortless. Take comfort from the fact that your fellow writers know this is not the case, and are admiring your craftsmanship and talent.


Filed under Steampunk, Verisimilitude, writing

6 responses to “Verisimilitude: a Steampunk Perspective

  1. I’ve just come across an interesting issue with this. Writing a character’s local dialect, an editor from that region pulled me up on over-using a particular word. Apparently to someone from around there it made the character sound like a total hick from the sticks, while to the rest of us in the team it was just what we needed to bring that region to life. Verisimilitude, like so much else, can depend upon where the reader is coming from.

    • This is true. And there are other writers frozen from writing with the idea that every detail must be perfect. But the idea is to not ‘push’ the reader away with something too obviously out of place.

      What was the particular word? I find people who try to write an Australian accent think to make everyone sound like Steve Irwin. His accent was showmanship. To get it right, wind back the mates and crikeys and remember we shorten everything by adding ‘o’ (Davo, Ambo, smoko, arvo, Johnno …).

  2. Verisimilitude–great word and interesting concept. Keeping the reader in the story, and in “suspension of disbelief mode”, if necessary is crucial. It’s part of the magic of reading, I suppose. I wonder if it’s better to fully describe a setting or describe just enough of it so that the readers will fill in the blanks themselves?

    • I think an important setting should get a full description. Even with a detailed description, twenty different imaginations will make twenty different settings. When I say to you ‘the house was a small brown box, with a tiny, neglected yard’, I will see an unpainted wooden structure with an overgrown garden while someone else might see a brick house overgrown with ivy. even if I was to describe it as the unpainted wooden brown box of a house with an overgrown native garden, I see a house with a veranda (as nearly every house in Queensland has some sort of balcony or veranda) and the garden has wattle and grevilleas in it. And even if I was to make a detailed description, there will still be a different version for every reader.

      What is important is that my little brown box doesn’t have a neat freak living in it. No neat freak would neglect the garden. Instead, the garden would be weeded and any lawn would be mowed. That is where the concept of verisimilitude crops up.

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