How to get the impossible right

Next time I'm at work and someone tells me to focus, I'm outta there. Image via Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

Next time I’m at work and someone tells me to focus, I’m outta there. Image via Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

One of the most difficult things about writing is balancing the needs of the story with what’s realistic. This is even more of a challenge in speculative fiction, where unreality is part of the package, but you have to be careful about going too far. It’s easy to cross the line, to force your reader to suspend a little too much disbelief. So I get excited when I see an example of the impossible done right, and I think Agent Carter did it. Read on for my somewhat spoilery argument.

Give me whatever kind of superpower you want and I’ll say, “Okay, great. Show me how it works.” But when you’re introducing something from the real world, like hypnosis, you’ve got to be careful. We know how hypnosis works and how it doesn’t, what it can do and what it can’t. Namely, hypnotic suggestions cannot force you to do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do. There’s an episode of Mythbusters that demonstrates this: Grant is told to do something uncharacteristic when triggered, drawing graffiti when Tory says “quantum physics” and jumping up and down when Kari yawns. When the post-hypnotic triggers are actually delivered, however, he feels the impulse to do the crazy things but won’t actually do them. “I had a clear idea of what they wanted me to do,” he says, and the suggestions make him laugh, but they can’t override his personality.

You get this on Agent Carter when you start to see Ivchenko’s hypnosis technique in action. One of his first targets is a minor character, Agent Yauch, who blissfully reveals all sorts of information about the Stark weapons that the S.S.R. has in storage. However, when Ivchenko tries to get Yauch to let him into the storage room, Yauch refuses. There might be some logistical reasons for this refusal, but it keeps with the reality of hypnosis: Yauch is a dutiful agent and he won’t violate a direct order like keeping Stark’s weapons under lock and key.

Ivchenko has to kick it up a notch to get his hands on the weapon he wants, and this is where we drift into speculative territory. He goes way beyond what’s normally possible in hypnosis – but there’s a plausible explanation for it. He attacks his next targets by finding their vulnerabilities: Dooley’s failing marriage, Stark’s grief over the loss of Steve Rogers. By exploiting these weak points, he’s able to get in and manipulate people more than he could with ordinary hypnosis, distracting them with their painful emotions so they’re not aware of what they’re actually doing. It’s a way to do the impossible without making it painfully obvious how impossible it is.

An article about science fiction writing once described the process in these (approximate) words: Your character might be an alien with ten tentacles, something no one has ever seen and that no one can relate to. But if she’s a mother, you now have something your readers can relate to. Highlight the familiar aspects of motherhood and you’ve got a way to ease the reader into the unfamiliar. By giving an example of how hypnosis really works (or doesn’t fully work, in this case), Agent Carter helps us suspend our disbelief when it shows us the less realistic hypnosis technique. This is how you can get the impossible right.