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Writing Advice: How Realistic Should Your Fiction Be?

Updated on September 17, 2017

"Realism in Fiction"

It may seem like a contradictory term. Is fiction pure fantasy, pure imagination? Can it simply be dream-like without having to be constrained by rules of logic, common sense, physics, or a need to represent the world and these hopeless little naked apes in it as everything really is? Or, do fiction writers have a responsibility to be realistic, especially when representing sensitive or controversial material? Is unrealistic nonsense a waste of time or grating to read, making the reader of your novel feel frustrated, like they are Alice and your novel is a confusing, chaotic Wonderland? Do you owe it to your readers to make sense? But is there a such thing as too much realism, to where it seems boring? Is simply shining a light on reality not "novelly" enough?

Realism in a novel can be a point of contention with authors, critics, and readers/fans. A former soldier might get pissed if your war story inaccurately represents the battlefield, but some liberties can be taken with accuracy to get the story you want to have happen to happen. Realism is subjective. You can't make blanket "all or nothing" statements about when to be realistic and when to be creative. My belief is that sometimes, heavily clinging to realism is good, and other times, it can be overly burdensome, and other times still, reality should be dropped altogether for the sake of making the story moving and entertaining. For example, a real battle? Hours to days to weeks of sitting around doing nothing can be cut. The Bible does not describe in detail every day that the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years. If reality gets boring, you need to skip those bits.

Here are some other general guidelines I've come up with for when to be realistic in fiction, and when being unrealistic is okay, or even necessary.

Be Unrealistic: Bodies

There's a huge movement (no pun intended) to redraw popular fictional characters in comic books and other visual storytelling media with "realistic" bodies, which usually just means pudgy or fat. The problem is, there's nothing unrealistic about a healthy athletic body. Those unrealistic body types make sense as the bodies that superheros would have, because they spend so much time doing physical tasks and they work out or have super strength. Write more overweight characters, but I take issue with them calling a super-spy, soldier, or Amazon warrior "unrealistic" for not being fat, when they would not realistically be fat given their job and activities and lifestyle.

Defending unrealistic bodies in comics and anime, I would say go for whatever is visually appealing, as long as it makes sense. Anime, manga, comics, and video games can have unrealistically attractive main characters because people want to see attractive people when watching, playing, or reading. I don't want to play a game where everyone looks just average like a regular Joe or Jane you'd see on the street. I appreciate Studio Ghibli and Satoshi Kon and other creators who make their people look like real people, but not everyone has to do that. I don't really see the problem with attractive and sexy fictional characters existing. It's what sells because it's what people want to see. A hero, going back to classical Greece, was defined as a person who could do something impossible to regular people, such as the famous 12 Labors of Heracles, or Perseus slaying Medusa. If your character is supposed to be an average guy or gal, fine, draw them like that. If they're supposed to be a hero, on the other hand, giving them a hero's body should not be looked on as a sin.

Yep, this is exactly how it happened.
Yep, this is exactly how it happened.

Be Realistic: Representation of Other Cultures

You have to tread very carefully when using cultures other than your own in your story. Are your "gypsies" based on real historical research, or 19th century romance novels written to appeal to white English Protestants who fetishized their supposedly exotic ways? Did you base your knowledge of their culture off of good anthropological sources and eye witnesses, or secondhand stories made up by snake oil salesmen trying to capitalize on the ignorance of others?

Get thee to a library!

Even if you fictionalize foreign cultures, and change them, sort of like how the Dothraki are a fictional equivalent to the real-world Mongolians, research helps. No publisher or critic has ever called a novelist out for showing that they did too much research in this area. More reality will always enhance the feeling of depth and authenticity here. The thing is, representing cultures other than your own can cause political controversy if it's not done right. Even positive stereotyping, like the "noble savage" trope, is going to be called out as still stereotyping. Avoid cliches that have been done to death in other fictional works depicting the culture in question.

For the love of God, do not write a romance between a white man and an attractive "savage" woman where the conflict lies in said white man being ordered to kill her people to help other white men conquer their land. Just ugh...

Be Unrealistic: If Realism Is Dangerous

It shouldn't need to be said, but don't put realistic instructions for the following things into your fictional work, especially if it's aimed at teenagers:

  • constructing bombs or making other weapons (like poisonous gas)
  • selling, buying, making, or using drugs or drug paraphernalia, especially when it comes to getting high off of regular household chemicals
  • prostitution
  • terrorism
  • torture
  • suicide
  • murder, and getting away with it, hiding or destroying a human body, getting rid of other evidence
  • rape, sexual abuse, and discrediting victims or avoiding prosecution for it

etc.

Basically, if it's not a good idea to do a thing, you don't want to give young adults and teenagers ideas about how to do it or get away with it. You can simply say they did something (like made a pipe bomb) without getting into details about how, which is basically what they do to avoid telling viewers how to cook meth in Breaking Bad. But since cooking meth figures so heavily into the plot of Breaking Bad, they have to talk about methods, so what they do that you could do too is just substitute the real information for some bullshit. It's better to have some real-life criminal complain that your show is unrealistic than to have a real-life crime inspired by your work. And don't underestimate the potential psychopathy of your audience.


Be Realistic: History

When representing history, I think books are best if they take care to show their work and put in as much historical realism as possible. This includes not having a female protagonist who is unrealistically feminist-thinking for her time period, or having a character who balks at the "disgusting" idea of arranged marriage at a cultural time and place where no other kind of marriage is even conceived of (looking at you, Mulan 2!).

Details of culture are important, but even smaller details about dress, social customs, food, transportation, household objects, etc. must be carefully researched. This will avoid a savvier reader picking up your book and sighing and laughing the whole time they read as your 19th century English duchess talks about GMOs, mini skirts, and how much she likes surfing.

Sometimes liberties can be taken. Sometimes there are holes in our knowledge of history. For example, we don't know for sure exactly what Julius Caesar's last words were, so Shakespeare penning them as "Et tu, Brute?" is an acceptable break. Speaking of the bard, it's also not historical fact that Cleopatra killed herself with asps on the paps, but since we don't really know how she offed herself, Bill was going for the most dramatic possibility for the stage. You can do that too.

Another liberty that can be taken is that almost every historical figure has plenty of room for alternative character interpretation. Was Elizabeth I of England a saint or a tyrant? Was Theodora of the Byzantine Empire a liberated, fiery proto-feminist, or an ambitious and greedy seductress? Or both? Or neither? History can tell us the dry facts, but the job of historical fiction is that it can give us a real emotional connection to old shards of pottery or king's bones.

But do your research!

Be Unrealistic: Cut the Filler

Reality is a place where there are beautiful, majestic pyramids and ugly, disgusting refuse heaps, but most of the space in between is unremarkable and not worthy of excessive description. For example, writing about a war in a realistic way would mean writing in a lot of boring hours of sitting, waiting for orders to move, sometimes with little to no talking permitted. It's perfectly fine to just skip that time in your novel (which is your reader's time too, and readers don't like their time being wasted) and jump right into the big confrontation with the enemy.

Almost every genre has boring stuff in the middle that can be cut. Just put in as much detail as is necessary to move the plot along, but if a girl spends two hours waiting for a guy at a restaurant only to get stood up, we don't need a picture painted of every minute.

Be Realistic: Actions Have Consequences

Your elf rogue stole the magic sword from the tyrant Lord Evilblue and has rode off with Lady Sparkletits to live happily ever after... But Lord Evilblue is still alive? His army isn't incapacitated, he hasn't lost all his power or been locked away in a dungeon or sealed into a magical ruby for the next hero of the next book to find, he's just... given up the chase altogether? Hm. This can be fine if you want to set up a sequel, but it's an ending with weird loose ends left dangling.

Often times, the difference between good and bad fiction is simply based on the following question: do the actions characters take always have real, consistent, clear, logical consequences? Game of Thrones and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic don't have a heck of a lot in common, but both are great for having this in common. Not having narrative causality is also known as a plot hole. It's a gap leaving the reader questioning the solidness of the world you've envisioned, similar to a glitch in the Matrix. It tells the reader, "hey this isn't real", as opposed to what you want to tell them, which is "hey this is super fun and interesting and worth the time it takes you to read it".

Magic and technology so advanced it may as well be magic can be a pitfall for this. I can think of the time turner from the Harry Potter series as a good example. In the third book, Harry and pals use a device capable of manipulating time, that Hermione had been using to take multiple advanced extracurricular classes at the same time, to save Buckbeak, a hippogriff (griffin but with a horse's rear instead of a lion's). But when later books take a darker turn, we're left wondering why these wizards don't manipulate time again for more serious matters, or to save human beings. And house elfs. And owls. (The later books get dark.) Or, why not go even further back in time and prevent the death of Harry's parents and the rise of Voldemort to power? Once J.K. Rowling introduced the possibility of manipulating time using magic, it kind of gets rid of the "actions have consequences" idea. Big problem.

So basically, don't have anything so powerful in your story that it invalidates other actions and the fact that actions have consequences. J.K. Rowling could get away with violating continuity because, other than a few hiccups, her stories were still excellent. But you, as a budding novelist the world has never heard of, need to try as hard as you can to be realistic in this sense.

Be Realistic or Unrealistic: Dialogue

Writing dialogue is to fiction what drawing hands is to art. It's difficult, burdensome, and some people opt out of it or try creative works-around to get out of it. But said works-around are usually not as good as getting down to it and doing dialogue the good old fashioned way, and using practice to improve gradually.

It's easy to get hung up on the question of realistic vs. unrealistic dialogue.

So here's a chart wherein I've decided to describe when dialogue should be realistic vs. unrealistic.

Realistic:
Unrealistic:
People do not talk in paragraphs.
Cut out verbal filler (um, uh, long pauses, repeating words, trailing sentences, etc.).
Don't put overly fancy words in the mouths of un-fancy people.
Create memorable, witty lines, even if people don't naturally tend to come up with so many of them so easily on the spot.
Real people cuss and use slang terms and shortened words.
Don't try to transcribe accents as they sound. Eet almoss alwais luuk wong. Haad tu riid. Deestracting, no?
People do not generally give their entire life story, or the entire history of their countries, or families, in casual conversation. Just put your expository background information in the narration. Unless your main character IS a history professor.
 

Reasons for Realism and Being Unrealistic

If you're choosing to make a certain part of your story realistic or unrealistic, it's good to know what the best reasons are for making each choice. How will the choice affect your story? The following chart is my list of reasons why you might decide to make something realistic, vs. making it fantastical.

Be Unrealistic:
Be Realistic:
To have a story that people will want to read and enjoy reading.
To have a story that makes sense.
To have your main character accomplish incredible, impressive things.
To put the reader into the world of the story, by connecting their real world and your fictional world as much as possible.
To show what makes your story exceptional and extraordinary.
To have the conflict resolved in a logical way, not in a too-easy (Deus Ex Machina) cheat. This makes the conclusion more satisfying, if it took more effort, skill, time, and planning.

Conclusion:

A good fiction is a synthesis of realistic and unrealistic parts. People often praise stories for realism, and that's a worthy goal, but it's also important to remember that stories are supposed to be entertaining, to excite, to mystify, to captivate. And a story about Doris the DMV Secretary is not going to accomplish that. Unless Doris discovers a portal to Narnia in her break room, or a dragon's egg in one of the old driver's ed cars. Or if Detective Stunningchin comes in requesting her help solving a bizarre slew of murders that are baffling law enforcement. Something fantastical has to happen, basically. Something that wouldn't happen in real life necessarily, or does not happen often in real life. Fiction is about the extraordinary, because that's what's necessary for good entertainment. But, it also has to be grounded in reason and logic, or readers will get tired of perceiving an amorphous cloud of nonsense when they want to read a story and figure out a sequence of events. That makes people impatient, and just as bored as complete realism. Life is about balancing contradictory energies into a harmonious whole. Do that with your writing for the greatest success.

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      Adie 2 months ago

      Thank you for this post, it really helped me! I will sit down and read through my manuscript and edit where I think I could make it more realistic and where I could make it more unrealistic (:))

      Keep up the good post writing!

      Adie