Reality Ensues

Who would win in a fight between Superman and the Hulk?

Short answer: The writer decides.

Long answer: It’s a complicated question. Is Superman holding back? Where are they fighting? What are they fighting about? Does Hulk’s amazing strength and resilience overcome the many other powers Superman has? Are either fighting at full strength? Are they really trying to win? And a whole list of questions that all still boil down to this:

The writer decides.

To paraphrase a recent Tweet I read from comics legend Kurt Busiek: Writers aren’t referees. It’s not simply their job to weigh all the factors and provide the appropriate outcome.

The goal of writing isn’t to be real. The goal of writing is to be engaging. And often, being engaging is avoiding reality. Even in non-fantastical settings, most stories don’t set out to give you the obvious answer. The very reason it’s fun to ask the question “Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman?” is because of the unexpected ways it could play out. Watching Superman melt Batman with heat vision isn’t probably very fun or unexpected, even if it is a logical outcome.

“It’s realistic” is rarely a good defense against criticism. There are many reasons for that, but I’d say the number one reason it falls short is that fiction isn’t real. Fiction is never real. It’s invented. The goal of good storytelling is to disguise that fact, but it can never truly be disguised. It can only be a shared illusion between author and audience, but that’s a fragile agreement. And one of the best way to shatter that agreement is for either side to resort to “realism.”

As a storyteller, I can’t usually point to realism as the sole reason I made a choice in a story, and as an audience, expectations of realism must always be tempered by an understanding that none of it is real.

How much “reality” exists in a story and how that reality expresses itself is very subjective. It’s not as if reality is a dial setting, and all the writer needs to do is say, “Reality Level 7”. Because even in stories that strive for realism, realism is still pretty damned flexible as a concept.

No one would claim that the Fast & Furious movies are realistic, particularly in their specific brand of car fu adventure, but if one of the characters were to suddenly transform into a car and race a dinosaur, it’d probably break the accepted reality of the story and its universe.

Superman stories have their own brand of reality, and if a writer were to have a random thug shoot and kill Superman with a regular gun without explanation, it would break that reality. It would, ironically, be unrealistic by the rules of the character.

Also, because stories aren’t real, any ongoing series is going to have mistakes and continuity errors and power creep. This is almost unavoidable. And as both the writer and the audience, we’ve learned to mostly accept this.

Marvel Comics used to have a thing called a No-Prize. It was specifically an award given to fans who came up with solutions to continuity mistakes. Since I’m old, I remember when comics had letter pages, and it was always fun when someone came up with a creative answer and earned their No-Prize.

But as much fun as these ideas were, they all skip over the most obvious answer:

Fiction is made up. Continuity is only as relevant as a creator wants it to be. No matter how real the illusion might be, it’s only an illusion. Reality (or more accurately, the particular brand of “reality” the story adheres to) is only there as a tool.

There are exceptions to every rule, but I’ve rarely enjoyed any story written solely with realism in mind. Even groundbreaking superhero tales like Watchmen, which are built on the trope of more realistic superheroes, still has a living god who can literally do anything as one of its primary and most compelling characters and it ends with a mad scientist unleashing a psychic genetic monstrosity.

Ignoring all the fantastical elements in fiction, it’s also why a character’s behavior should rarely be defined by realism. A character can certainly behave in a realistic manner, but it should serve the story that they do. And, really, that’s the balance all fiction must maintain. Choices can’t break the reality of the story, but they must also be engaging and interesting enough to warrant the audience’s attention.

Stories don’t need to be full of car chases and sword fights, passionate love and mad revenge. A story can be about nothing particularly exciting and can still be engaging. Just as long as it understands that realism is not the goal.



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