Willing suspension of disbelief is a contract between the writer and the reader, in a way. The writer takes you somewhere else, into other lives and other places, and the reader agrees to go along for the ride, to accept the reality that I and other writers create for you on the pages of a book.
Both of us know the characters we offer you are not real-life individuals. For me, as for most writers, I expect, they are an amalgam of people I have known, have observed, probably have admired or disliked. Part of these characters is of course the author herself, stemming from the subconscious and from life experiences, but part of them is imaginary, born of the creative impulse. Writer and reader both understand that.
Yet the reader who becomes absorbed in the book finds the characters and the events real enough to set aside the little voice in the head that says, "This is just a story," and accept what the book has to give, be it romance, adventure, drama or mystery, or maybe a combination thereof. Good books create a world that the reader enters eagerly and leaves reluctantly. Over my lifetime I've read thousands of books, and from among them emerge characters whose words or deeds have stayed with me and who become part of my frame of reference. To me they are real because they resonate so profoundly with life as I have known and observed it. Surely that happens with most devoted readers of fiction.
What is it that allows this suspension of disbelief, this agreement between writer and reader that makes a story work? It must be, to some extent, an earnest desire on the reader's part to be taken into those lives, that other place. It must be, also, the writer's craft, her ability to fashion a believable world. It must be, too, something mysterious and indefinable that has been at work in fiction for centuries. Perhaps we cannot fully understand or define it.
But we know that it has to happen if fiction is to work. Books that I abandon, having begun them hopefully, are ones that fail to pull me in so that I do not suspend disbelief. Books that I stay with are ones that allow me to put my real world aside and enter this fictional one, eager to find out what happens next, meeting people I come to care about.
Whatever this phenomenon is, however we characterize it, it is the magic of which fiction is made. Profound thanks to all those readers who enter the world of books time and time again and willingly suspend their disbelief.