Writing

What Is Verisimilitude? Literary Device Definition and Examples of Verisimilitude

Written by MasterClass

Mar 29, 2019 • 4 min read

Verisimilitude (pronounced ve-ri-si-mi-li-tude) is a theoretical concept that determines the semblance of truth in an assertion or hypothesis. It is also an essential tenet of fiction writing. Verisimilitude helps to encourage a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. When using verisimilitude in writing, the goal is to be credible and convincing.

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What Is Verisimilitude?

The definition of verisimilitude is, in short, something that has the appearance of truth. It possesses the quality or properties of truth, without necessarily being true. Of course, that in an of itself presents the problem of verisimilitude: that something can appear to be true, but is actually false.

Using the “lie” of a made-up story to reach a human truth is one of the central tools of literature. In order to sink into and enjoy a story, an audience must be willing to accept that the story they are hearing is a facsimile of reality.

Fiction writers need to know how to use verisimilitude in order to draw readers in by resembling reality. As Neil Gaiman says:

“We’re using memorable lies. We are taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people, in places that aren’t, and we are using those things to communicate true things.”

What Is the Origin of Verisimilitude?

The origin of verisimilitude comes from the Latin “verisimilitudo,” which is derived from “verisimilis” (meaning “probably”); “verus” (meaning “true”); and “similis” (meaning “like”).

Historical verisimilitude can be traced back to “mimesis”—a dramatic theory proposed and upheld by both Plato and Aristotle which dictated that in order for a work of art to be persuasive, it must have some grounding in reality. (“Mimesis” means the imitation of nature.)

What Are the Types of Verisimilitude In Fiction?

There are two types of verisimilitude in fiction. The degree of verisimilitude can vary across these two types.

  • Cultural verisimilitude. This refers to the overall plausibility of a work of fiction when regarded in the context of the real world. For example, any novel that portrays the real world is said to have cultural verisimilitude.
  • Generic verisimilitude. This refers to the overall plausibility of a work of fiction when regarded in the context of its own genre. For example, a fantasy that portrays an imaginary world with enough internal consistency that it feels real is said to have generic verisimilitude. It doesn’t matter how outlandish the world of your story is, it should feel real to the reader.

5 Simple Ways to Incorporate Verisimilitude In Fiction Writing

In fiction, verisimilitude serves a higher purpose of conveying emotional truths to your reader in a way that will entertain them, help them through difficult times, make them think differently about the world, or even change their lives. You can use the following tips and tricks to strengthen verisimilitude in your characters, settings, and scenes.

  • Provide specific, concrete sensory details. You can make up an underground tunnel that doesn’t exist, but if you describe the smell of sewage and the persistent dripping of water, you draw your reader into a concrete experience that contributes to the sense of reality.
  • Focus on emotions that are true to your characters. Your hero might be fighting an impossible beast, but everyone will be able to relate to their fear.
  • Incorporate the familiar alongside the unfamiliar. Keeping the reader grounded in things they recognize is just as important as introducing new and interesting elements.
  • Avoid technical mistakes. If you’re writing about the real world, get the facts straight. If you’re writing a magical world, stay consistent with the laws of your creation.
  • Take time to cover objections. If something isn’t right in your world, let your characters notice that it isn’t right for them either.

6 Examples of Verisimilitude In Literature

To understand more about the different kinds of verisimilitude in fiction, the “counterfactual” genre is a good place to start. These books tackle “what if” questions such as: “What if Hitler had won the war?” They set their stories in a familiar reality that is twisted in some meaningful way, coupling the familiar and unfamiliar.

The following books provide examples of how writers can finely balance reality and imagination, and transport their readers to amazingly believable worlds.

  1. Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962)—What if America lost World War II?
  2. Kingsley Amis, The Alteration (1975)—What if the Reformation had never happened?
  3. Robert Harris, Fatherland (1992)—What if Hitler had won the war?
  4. Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)— What if the U.S. struck an entente with Hitler?
  5. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)—What if a Jewish state had been established in Alaska?
  6. Ben Winters, Underground Airlines (2016)—What if slavery had never ended in America?

2 Quick Exercises to Help You Practise Verisimilitude In Writing

Choose a page or scene from your work-in-progress and analyze it for verisimilitude by answering the following questions:

  • Are your descriptive details specific? Can you make them sensory?
  • Is your character’s behavior in line with their personality?
  • Do their responses make sense for them?
  • Can you fact-check anything?

To practice honesty in your writing, choose one of the following moments and write a few paragraphs in your journal about it.

As you write, pay attention to what you’re writing, noting the particular things that make you uneasy. Try to be a little more honest than you’re comfortable with. Remember: being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared; it means you do it anyway.

  • A time when you were deeply embarrassed
  • When you regret something you did
  • The saddest moment of your life
  • A secret you are afraid to talk about

Take some of the example sentences you wrote above and either read them aloud to someone you trust, or read them alone and pretend that you have an audience. Listen to the way you sound and pay attention to the sensations in your body as you’re reading the difficult moment. Consider what you’re afraid of being judged for, or afraid of saying out loud. Write those things down.