One of the primary tensions in writing and/or reading fiction is the tug between wanting complete immersion in a fictitious world while also accepting that it is, at its heart, a fabrication. We often talk of the willful suspension of disbelief, and that is certainly important for the enjoyment of fiction. But whose job is it to enable that suspension? Is it entirely up to the audience, as the term implies? Or should an artist be expected to ease some of that burden by creating a generally believable world?
As is usually the case, I would say there should be a reasonable balance. Yes, the artist ought to share some of the burden, but the reader or viewer must contribute their own willingness to believe. And it’s going to differ drastically, both from one genre to another as well as from individual to individual. In science fiction, we’re generally willing to accept spaceships with capabilities far beyond anything that our current technology allows, but we’d probably look askance if they existed in a story set in the present day. We allow, and even expect, science-defying magic in a fantasy novel, but you couldn’t write a tale set entirely in the mundane world and then toss in a magic spell right near the end without it having an incredibly jarring effect upon the reader.
As for individual tastes, everyone has their personal deal-breakers — consider, for example, this cleverly-titled exploration of the author’s architectural pet peeve. For the average viewer, ignorant of the actual nature of suspension bridges, these inaccuracies won’t be a problem. But for him, it’s impossible to let it go. It’s not clear whether filmmakers are aware of the gross engineering inaccuracies they’re perpetuating, but I suspect that even if they are, they don’t worry about it much. Because you can’t cater to every single viewer, and for the purpose of an exciting story, they’d rather have a cool-looking destructive scene than worry about accuracy for a tiny percentage of their audience.
And honestly? This focus on being realistic can be carried too far. I think especially in the more fantastic genres, I see a lot of trying to force real-world parameters on characters and situations that simply don’t fit. It’s one thing to playfully imagine which of the Myers-Briggs personalities match up with your favorite fictitious people, but it’s quite another to claim that a character’s behaviors are invalid because they don’t match up to a psychological profile. Unless the writer is an expert in psychology with the intent of creating psychologically-accurate characters, I don’t really think that’s a fair basis on which to condemn a story. They can’t be psycho-analyzed because they’re not real.
It could be that we want to take our fiction a little too literally. In my view, the thing that makes literature so wonderful (and the fantasy genre in particular), is its endless opportunity for metaphor. There is no such thing as a evil ring that takes control of you the more you use it, so creating a psych profile of Gollum or Frodo would be a trifle disingenuous. On the other hand, you could imagine the ring as a metaphor for addiction, or mental illness, or any wide variety of things. It’s up to your personal interpretation, but as Tolkien was very adamant of reminding us, he was not writing an allegory — a simple fable with one-to-one correspondence between fictitious and real-world tropes. Is the Lord of the Rings about World War I? Sure, if you want it to be. But not universally. And to become fixated on some small detail of the story, feeling it doesn’t match up with its real-world counterpart, will often lead to you missing out on the beauty of its vast metaphorical meanings.
As I acknowledged earlier, this doesn’t give the author a free pass to write whatever implausible thing they please and put all the blame on the readers if they have trouble wrapping their minds around it. Creating a world should be done with care and consideration, with as much inner consistency as is fitting with the specific genre and style of storytelling. But a reader has to contribute something as well if they want to accept this imaginary world. If you have trouble accepting truly fantastical and extravagant scenarios, that’s fine — maybe you’re better off reading non-fiction. Or historical fiction, or whatever level of suspended disbelief you’re able to bring. But if you’re going to read anything with the intent of being transported to another world, you’re better be willing to believe in the spaceship that’s taking you there. How’s that for metaphor?