In simpler terms, verisimilitude is how similar to real-life a literary work is. It is an incredibly important part of all literary works, from non-fiction to fantasy. All literary creations have some amount of verisimilitude. This means that all writing is rooted in reality to some degree.
Definition of Verisimilitude
Verisimilitude in literature is concerned with how convincing a literary work is for those reading it. Audiences should be able to suspend their disbelief long enough to enter the literary world and feel that it’s real. The events in the poem, play, novel, or short story should be similar to real-world experiences that readers can connect to their own lives.
Without verisimilitude, readers will likely set the book to the side, unconvinced by what they’ve read and feeling unwilling to continue. This means that good literature requires an understanding of how the real world works. That is conversations between real people and other kinds of interactions.
What is Suspension of Disbelief?
Directly related to verisimilitude is a phrase called “suspension of disbelief.” This refers to the reader’s willingness to forget that they’re engaged in reading about a fictional world and accept what they’re exposed to. This applies to all literary genres but is easiest to understand regarding fantasy and science fiction. Without some elements of reality, these genres would be hard to consume. Readers need to be convinced that the events are possible, even if they are quite different and distant. The interactions between characters add a lot to a story’s verisimilitude.
The term was coined in 1817 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He wrote about it in Biographia Literaria.
Examples of Verisimilitude
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In this well-loved American novel, the writer uses dialect as a way to create verisimilitude. She includes numerous passages in which she depicts how people from the south, specifically Alabama, talk. Consider the following lines in which Jem is talking about Scout reading skills and Dill’s age:
Shoot no wonder, then,” said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. “Scout yonder’s been readin‘ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin’ on seven.
Words like “shoot,” “readin’,” and “ain’t” are convincing parts of Jem’s dialect. It’s easy to imagine how his words sound out loud and therefore feel like he’s a part of the real world. Readers might also notice how Lee’s descriptions of scenes lend her novel verisimilitude. Consider these lines from Chapter 1:
There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Here, the narrator, Scout, is describing what her home was like. To most readers, elements of this description are going to hit home and feel familiar.
A Lady by Amy Lowell
In this beautiful poem, Lowell uses a wonderful example of a simile that helps to create verisimilitude. She writes the following lines about a woman:
You are beautiful and faded
Like an old opera tune
Played upon a harpsichord;
After reading this, readers should have an image in their minds of this woman. Not only what she looks like but what it is like to be around her. She reminds the speaker of the romance around opera and the harpsichord. There is tradition and beauty wrapped up in this simile as well.
Read Amy Lowell’s poetry.
1984 is a great example of a novel that depends on verisimilitude for readers to truly understand it. With recent history as an example, Orwell crafts a futuristic dystopian world in which all men, women, and children are subject to the rules of the Party. This governing body restricts everything from sex to creative expression. There is no free thought nor free will. In the following passage, Orwell uses verisimilitude when he describes Winston Smith’s frustrations in regard to Julia, a young woman he’s lusting after.
He hated her because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask you to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity.
Here, Orwell uses numerous adjectives and imagery in order to paint a picture of what Julia looks like and how Winston feels. These feelings, no matter their setting, are based on real human experiences.
Why Do Writers Use Verisimilitude?
Writers use verisimilitude in order to make their stories feel real. It is an important literary device no matter the genre one is writing in. When used, readers can connect events, people, dialogue, settings, and more to their own lives. This means that they’ll be more willing to suspend their disbelief and accept that the world they’re hearing about is real (no matter if it is or not).
It refers to something having the qualities of reality or truth.
Orwell’s use of setting in 1984 is a great example. Although the novel is set in a futuristic time and during the reign of an invented governing body, it’s also in London.
In literature, it refers to how real the literary world is. That is, how it resembles the lives of readers and convinces them it’s a version of the truth.
“This story has a great deal of verisimilitude” or “Without verisimilitude, your novel is going to fail.”
As in literature, verisimilitude in film refers to how the film resembles the real world and relates to the audience’s lives.
Related Literary Terms
- Simile: a comparison between two, unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as.”
- Context: the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.
- Dialect: a form of a language spoken by a group of people.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.