We need to have a talk about Realism in storytelling.
Well, we probably don’t. If you’re a fan of anything I’ve written, you’re probably cool with a flexible definition of reality. So this might very well be preaching to the choir, but it’s still worth talking about because if you read any criticism of storytelling in general, across all genres, is the specter of Realism.
I use capital R “Realism” because we’re not talking about actual reality, but about perceptions of reality. The truth is that reality is often unrealistic, in that it doesn’t always conform to our experiences or expectations. Usually when I see the “Not Realistic” complaint, it comes from a shallow place, built on either an arrogant assumption that our experience is the default human experience OR an unexamined cultural presumption.
But before I tackle those two points, I need to point out the most obvious truth here:
REALISM IS NOT THE POINT OF STORIES
It might seem a strange observation to have to make, but most stories are not about creating a realistic experience. The phrase “Suspension of Disbelief” means suspending one’s hostility toward a story to accept it on its own terms. It doesn’t mean that a story can do anything and just ask the audience to overlook it, but it does mean that every story has its own rules and version of reality. The audience doesn’t have to accept that, but not accepting isn’t always in indication of a broken story. Rather, some stories and audiences are just going to be incompatible, and that’s okay.
In fantasy and science fiction, the acceptable breaks from reality can be fairly obvious, but all genres have their conventions that are all-but-invisible if you’re a fan. In action movies, heroes are tougher and faster and stronger than any human could really be. I’m put in mind of Harrison Ford in the last Indiana Jones film. It was unbelievable the amount of punishment he could take for a man of his advancing years, but then again, it was always unbelievable the amount of punishment Indiana Jones has taken. The gray hair and wrinkles didn’t change that.
“Not Realistic” isn’t always a bad complaint, but it’s hard to justify because stories aren’t usually invested in realism. They’re invested in creating interesting ideas and themes and characters and events.
It’s funny whenever I hear Batman and his world described as a more Realistic take on superheroes. Batman is a ninja, martial artists, detective, scientist, Olympic athlete who operates a high-tech war on crime from his secret lair under his mansion. His most famous foe is an evil clown with bleached skin and green hair who usually wears a purple suit and hides out in the old, abandoned joke factory or comedy club. Or maybe the guy in the green suit who drops clues to his crimes. Or the cat burglar who actually dresses like a cat. And let’s not forget the mutant bat or man made of clay who can shapeshift at will.
Even efforts to make Batman more Realistic inevitably slide into absurdist superhero tropes. Nolan’s Batman trilogy has a Joker who can somehow outsmart and kill everyone. And the film’s action climax relies on Batman using supertechnology to create a sonar of the city that he grasps instantly and is super effective!
We’re going to put aside bad faith Not Realistic complaints because who has the time? A lot of times people are just upset because they don’t like something and, without the ability to just admit that the story didn’t speak to them, they get nitpicky and make spurious stabs at Realism.
But there is another reflex to think of these things in terms of our own expectations, as if we are the best observer of Reality. One of my pet peeves is when I see someone critique a story because a character is X and “an X would never act like that.” It’s a broad stroke that doesn’t really work because, even if it were true 100% of the time (and it never is), it wouldn’t matter for this particular character, so long as the character is consistent with what the storyteller has managed.
(Consistency is tricky concept as well, but we’ll put that aside for the moment.)
Historical fiction and pseudo-historical fiction also gets a lot of this. Because most people understand history only by the bit they’ve absorbed through their culture. The American West had a lot of minority cowboys and active women in it. But decades of books and TV shows and movies have made the impression of the era as all white guys riding tall in the saddle. It’s not that the genre hasn’t made advances. It’s just we haven’t generally cracked through that shell yet.
Even weirder is when you get to worlds that are loosely based on eras but not technically that era. A woman gunslinger might be a weird thing to see in a standard Western, but once steampunk robots show up, I’m pretty cool with just about anything. And if your pseudo-Medieval Europe setting has dragons and elves and balrogs, I’m not going to be troubled by women who pick up swords or lead armies into battle.
Which brings me to another pet peeve: Just because you based your setting on a real world moment, that doesn’t mean you have to be beholden to every element of that moment. For that matter, you don’t have to be beholden to the reality of this moment.
I have very little institutionalized racism or sexism in my stories. Not because I don’t believe these things exist in Reality. They very much do. But it’s my story, and if I want to create a world where that’s not really an issue, I can do so. If you call me out on Realism, you’re right. But it doesn’t mean you’re right that the story is bad.
I will say that writing for Realism is the best way to make a bad story. There are tons of reasons to write a story. They can be fun. They can be thematic. They can be philosophical or exploratory or a chance to experience the world from a new point of view. They can be an excuse to have a robot punch a slime monster in the face. But if your justification for a story choice is Realism, then you’re probably writing for the wrong reason.
This is coming from the space squid, cosmic moon monster writer, but it’s still true.
Fighting the good Fight, Writing the good write,