Part 1 in the series, “Suspending Disbelief”
In the mid-1960s an episode of Candid Camera went tragically wrong. Alan Funt entered a kindergarten class and spent time talking one-on-one with five year olds, asking about their favorite toys, best friends, and family pets. All the children were talkative, animated, and friendly. Then another adult came in and led the child into a different room for a couple of minutes, during which time Alan Funt hid behind a curtain and a two-foot dummy looking exactly like him was put in the chair in his place.
Each child was then led back in as a hidden camera was filming him or her. The adults wanted to see if the children would look at the dummy of Alan Funt and then just start talking to it as though it were the same person. However, in each of four tries, the children became horrified, started screaming in panic, and tried to escape the room, fully believing that the dummy was Alan Funt, only now horribly disfigured.
A follow-up to this experience turned out to be amazing. Children were brought in one at a time and introduced to a ventriloquist who had a dummy sitting on his lap. The children were interviewed by both the man and by the dummy. This time the children treated the dummy as if it were a real human being. They answered his questions, laughed with him, and even shook hands with him. As long as the dummy was an identifiable entity in and of itself, and it stayed in character, the children had no problem with it whatsoever.
I was an adult when I saw this Candid Camera broadcast, but I had no difficulty believing its veracity. You see, as a child my favorite show after school every day was Howdy Doody. I absolutely loved that show and its iconic string-puppet star. I never missed an episode. In my childlike mind, Howdy was as real as fellow cast members Buffalo Bob, Clarabell the Clown, and Chief Thunderthud. In fact, when I was eleven and they announced the show was going off the air, I was depressed for weeks. (Years later, my wife told me that when she heard the announcement as a girl, she actually cried the whole day.)
If you had pressed me as a kid, yeah, I probably would have said Howdy was a puppet, but I never processed that mentally. I was having too much fun accepting Howdy as a walking, talking, adventure-loving, yodeling boy. Likewise for Dilly Dally, Phineas T. Bluster, and Flub-a-Dub. Because they had emotions, personalities, dreams, fears, and a sense of humor, I related to them, liked them, and bonded with them, marionettes or not.
As fiction writers, we can draw many lessons from this childhood openness to parallel worlds, fantasy situations, and make-believe characters. Human nature is bent toward a love of escapism and altered realities, and the reasons for this are probably myriad. Escapism tickles our imagination; it provides a haven for us that is safer than the real world; it gives us friends who won’t let us down; it allows us vicariously to be part of heroic deeds. Shoot, I’m no psychiatrist, but who needs a degree to see what is blatant: People like to suspend disbelief.
This does not mean, however, that anything goes. In writing novels, short stories, stage plays, and musicals, I’ve learned that my audiences will follow me as long as I don’t burst the bubble of disbelief. To that end, some rules must be followed.
Next week: “Characters Must Be Consistent”
Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His 54 books include:
- Jesus in the 9 to 5: Facing the Challenges of Today’s Business World
- How to Write What You Love and Make a Living at It
- Man to Man: Becoming the Believer God Called You to Be
- More Than Meets the Eye: Finding an Extraordinary God in Ordinary Life
- Alpha Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 Hours
- Surprises and Miracles of the Season: Devotions for Christmas and New Year’s
- The Power of Positive Productivity
© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.