Realism in Fiction

“The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.” – Tom Clancy.

Or any of the other variants by Lord Byron (Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction) or Mark Twain (Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth isn’t), or any of the other similar attributions. I ended up finding about five or six different attributions for similar quotes, including a couple of unconfirmed attributions.

Either way, the sentiment remains fairly similar – fiction must be realistic, otherwise you will lose the readers.

Actually, that’s probably an unfair assessment. Or, at least, it’s an unfair definition of realistic. Talking about realism in fiction quickly tends to devolve into an argument over definitions, and in genres.

I think that the best demonstration of ‘realism’ in fiction is also the one that makes my skin crawl the most.

“Why does this bother you so much? It’s a story about [wizards/unicorns/fantasy elements] – why are you worried about the [physics/economics/blatantly terrible character decisions]?”

The simple answer to this one is ‘suspension of disbelief’ – the story has told me up front that the price of entry is to believe in wizards and unicorns, but they haven’t told me that the price of entry is to believe that an untreated gut wound the size of a human hand would not be fatal.

Of course, there’s always going to be leeway on that, too – a romance story gets held to far different standards than a thriller in the vein of John Grisham or Matthew Reilly, because part of the expectations of what particular disbeliefs I’m going to need to suspend come from the genre, not just from the expectations the author sets up.

But I don’t really want to get into suspension of disbelief here. It’s the subject of a thousand and one rants out there on the Intertubes, and it’s a discussion I think that’s best had in person, rather than one I want to just type an essay about and leave it go.

Instead, I’d like to talk about another aspect of keeping things believable. Because there’s another layer to the story that isn’t just whether something is objectively realistic and believable – we’re talking fiction here, so there has to be another level where the story is emotionally acceptable.

This comes back to the note I made about genres earlier – part of the reason that we get away with things, as writers, that we might not otherwise, is because the audience reads the books we write as members of a genre as well as works on their own terms, and therefore makes judgements about the things they’ll encounter and the things they do and do not accept from the story. It even gets to the point where something that is actually realistic won’t be accepted as realistic by the people reading the story, for the simple fact that the readers have been conditioned to accept the unrealistic convention by fiction.

There are far more documented examples of this in television and movies than in writing – the sound of horse hoofbeats, for example, being criticised as unrealistic in movies that didn’t use the sound of coconut halves being hit together (as mocked by Monty Python), because most audiences at the time weren’t in close contact with horses, and had only heard them portrayed with coconut halves.

Books have less of this, but you’re still going to find a group of people who see the conceits of the genre as more satisfying, making for ‘a better story’ than the technically realistic version. The most cited version of this (usually derisively, though not always deservedly so) is the romance genre, where the readers are usually looking for the main characters to overcome odds and fall in love, despite obstacles from a rocky start, to incompatible personal values, to economic issues and family objections, just to name a few. The resulting relationships aren’t always representative of real-world relationships, and in many cases in the real world would be quite unwise. But the point of the relationship in fiction is that for a while people can forget that they are unwise and enjoy the story.

The most obvious parallel is the thriller, where despite the stories often being quite grounded in real-world settings (often addressing real-world issues, and set in current conflicts), but the gadgets often have functions bordering on the fantastic, and the heroes can power through injuries that by  all rights should be at least debilitating and probably fatal. However, that’s all accepted as part of the genre, with the readers either not caring about the departures from realism, or actively encouraging them because it makes the story more exciting to read.

So, the question a writer has to ask, in my opinion, is not whether something is realistic, but whether that thing will be accepted, and being accepted is far more about the tone of the story being upheld than about things literally being realistic.

Obviously there are going to be people who will pick apart the story and not enjoy it because of those departures from reality, particularly in stories that seem to make a claim to a basis in science (soft science fiction or some more realistic thrillers). But that’s all a matter of who you’d like to pitch the story to – what readers are you aiming for, and whose reading style are you writing for? If you’re writing for the latter group, then you’ll want to write to a different standard of realism than the former.

I could get into a whole other rant about why the suspension of disbelief advice so often skews towards stories that are as realistic as possible, but that’s another blog post, I think, and one I’m not necessarily going to have the necessary words to write for the next couple of weeks. But once I’ve had a sit and a think, it’s going on the list.

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