Realism in Fiction
What is realism's place in fiction?
As far as I am aware, light novels are for the most part consumed for pleasure. Whether that is through escapism, thrills, comedy or complicated math in blue boxes, pleasure tends to be the end goal to some extent (with the exception of horror genres but you are all potentially masochists at heart so idk). I feel as though in this environment which thrives of pleasure through vicarious living, realism struggles to find its place.
Outside of self-insert fictions aiming to make the reader feel like an OP dragon-slaying, harem-having, genius protagonist or anti-hero; (arguably a false facsimile of realism which is just real enough that the reader can relate themselves to a character) realism tends to be found in the dark and gritty action fictions. The high tension created from using realism as a tool to raise the stakes in every combat. Realism is also claimed lie within your magical fantasies where they use science to supplement their magic to levels greater than all those before them. But that tends to be the end of it. Realism is a tool to be used sparingly. A tool commonly used to increase emotional reactions to a scene, to create a sense of hopelessness in horror in a contrast of the real to the surreal or to make the reader believe that they too could do all this cool stuff if given the chance.
- Can realism exist as a primary aspect of a fiction, beyond being just a storytelling tool but as the core of a setting?
- Would it even be entertaining to read something like that?
- At what point does a novel's realism become something that is a detractor?
The events might be as fantastic as you want, but the reader must be able to follow the character goals, know what would be gained or lost and why he should care. Usually having set rules that the story must follow helps with t.
And I think realism gets boring when gets it in the way of interesting developments and the story stagnates. Not many want to see an action hero recover for weeks after every injury. Or the villain refusing to go through with his ingenious plan because the guards did their job in the interconnected network of security. Or martial artist needing to practice every technique ten thousand times to master it, stretching his journey to many years.
I personally think the dark and gritty action fictions are the most unrealistic of them all. I can suspend my disbelief enough to cope with physical wounds healing in a day or week. But dealing with emotional loss and hurt and being able to continue somehow, even repeatedly? Without needing some years of healing in between or being so psychological crippled that they are unable to deal with any challenges that they all die in chapter 2? And even hand waving the sheer improbability away, would I want to see the results of that? Looking at pictures of gross physical wounds is less disturbing than being exposed to a realistic description of only PTSD not to speak of what more realistic results of such stories would be.
And that is not even speaking about the realism of the setting..
But ultimately realism in fiction isn’t actual used with the goal of creating realistic scenarios, but to give the impression of them being real. Realism for it’s own sake has no purpose in fiction. Sure, you could make any part of realistic action interesting if you put in the work and know what you’re doing, but most attempts at pure realism don’t actually do anything with the character being incapacitated for a realistic amount of time and nothing interesting happening. Though you could add drama in happening WHILE they can’t do anything about it as an interesting source of suspense, but most don’t by default remember to the toilet scene actually interesting. (I assure you it is technically possible)
So realism goes to far when writers forget the point of adding it in. Ultimately they are idiots anyway because it won’t be 100% realistic no matter what they do, so really they’re just doing stuff without thinking about it. You can just assume the necessities of reality are dealt with behind the scenes unless you’re trying to make a point about those specific realities. It might be interesting that mountain climbers have to patch seven doohickies on their trip but it doesn’t mean I’ll care if it doesn’t make a point on the protagonist being incompetent or competent somehow or foreshadow doohicky #263 breaking and causing the plot.
Realism can make a story feel larger, like there’s all these complications constantly affecting each other which makes the end result more and more intricate and shows us our own naiveties. It can put more weight in characters as you show how each are highly complex and hard to predict, or even show us how hard it is to make our dreams live up to reality, and how we need to deal with that in a personal level. How things are always more complicated than we can fully imagine within our own minds.
But if it’s not doing anything like those kinds of things I hardly know why anyone would bother.
Otherwise, I've seen mentions to things like the stages of grief, and it really changed how I see characters. Having some spineless, cowardly loser who can't even look girls in the eye turn into a murder-hobo who collects waifus like pokemon is pretty jarring. Especially when the whole isekai plot-line means nothing beyond being an excuse for self-insert wish fulfillment, since the protagonist never seems to care at all about Earth and adapt within a few moments.
I mean, come on.
It also goes the other way when some old person, military veteran or scientist type gets isekai'd and turn into a naive, weak-willed idiot.
You ever remember what it was like being a kid and not caring? I sort of miss that state of mind now, I never used to care and could just enjoy fun for the sake of fun. Now I feel like one of those weirdo judges on some stupid reality TV show that is way too touchy about how many grains of rice are allowed on a plate.
veted Wrote: It gets bad when you read sci-fi and they ignore some basic knowledge, like the speed of light. Other times you can sort of forgive people for pulling CSI-tier stupid, because it's fun, and they obviously don't know how computers even work. But it's quite jarring at times.
Much has been written about suspension of disbelief. It is worth remembering that fantastic is just an old world for fictional. Reality itself is extremely boring and usually hardly worth reading about. Only few instances of it are worth making documentaries about and even those have to be tweaked it at least a little to make them worth reading (and if it is only compressing things).
That said, there are some things that can produce an irritating feeling of unrealness. Though those are always a at least a bit subjective and what is a problem for one reader and in one setting can be some interesting spice for another reader or in another setting.
1) 'Wrong' physics
People are used to our world and how it works. Anything that has different physics is by definition impossible in reality and thus lacks in one aspect of reality. But then this lack is a prerequisite for many kinds of story. After all, you cannot have magic spells, telepathy, faster than light travel, fate, super powers or many other things without breaking physics.
There are two ways to cope with that: Either present it as a different reality or by bending our reality.
Presenting it as a different reality works in my experience as reader best by simply not speaking about it but making it clear that things are different.
Bending our reality is dangerous as it openly conflicts with what many readers know and you might make it too irritating to read especially for those having a bit of science education. Things like bending space for FTL travel, mental breakthrough to harness magic, waving around the word quantum mechanic for telepathy, collonising Mars to survive something happening on Earth, walking through walls by just stopping believing they are solid and things like that brings you not only into "definitely not real" world but also in the "wrong things some people might belief about our world" territory. That can make it terribly hard to suspend my disbelief for some people, especially for me, though it might work for others.
There are also some mixed forms, that are a bit of both or can be interpreted as being both. Like having a multiverse with our universe as one part of it and some way of interaction between those (and be it reincarnation). That can work both as "clearly not our physics, fine" and "I don't realize that is not our physics" for different readers. Same with switches of physics, like "advent of the system", where the world you imagine has our physics until some point and something that is too absurd to be reality afterwards: For those getting easily triggered that is so clearly over the top that it is just a fictional world they can embrace while others might not even realize how unrealistic that is.
Being a physical or magical world, I as reader expect some consistency. This is another hard thing to get right. Make too little rules apparent and you generate no feeling of consistency. State too many rules of the world and the inconsistencies will be clearly visible (any fictional world will have many of those). If your fictional world has truth potions or spells or mind reading to determine truth, then some readers will be disrupted quite a bit if those do not have quite the effect on society. (Especially law enforcement and politics).
Probable things are extremely boring. For a story to be worth reading it has to be some improbability: At least too many events worth reading about happening to the same person. And especially many events that are worth to be told together, showing the characters in easy ways, a limited set of actions that if told explain the whole thing. In short there must be a story with a plot. But while the plot is essential it is by definition also some lack of reality. It gets irritating once the easiest answer to "why did that just happen?" is "Because it was needed by the plot".
For a good story that is always the most likely answer (at least if you see introducing the characters and the world as part of the plot). But the purpose of the author is to make the reader forget that.
If you are writing a hard hitting science fiction novel that tries to confront some dystopian possible future then you damn well better be realistic because the whole point of your story is that this could really happen. You don't get to hand-wave things away in a story like that, it undermines your entire premise.
If you are writing a story that explores ordinary human characters then you should also aim for realism, your story is about real people after all.
If you are writing a fun dive into the realm of the impossible, exploring places where magic and fantasy abound then your story doesn't really need as much realism. Keep in mind, realism means confronting all the baggage that comes along with it which might make your setting literally impossible (dragons realistically don't make efficient apex predators unless most animals are dinosaur sized). It might also limit your characters, realistically very few people would have long careers as adventurers in no small part due to increased risk for things like PTSD.
So yes, realism can absolutely be the point of your story, and can make for an extremely compelling read. This is the central idea of The Handmaid's Tale, for example. It can also enhance your characters, giving them arcs that resonate with readers because they've experienced the same or similar thing. In particular, this is really powerful in fantasy because it takes something the reader inherently cannot relate to (none of us have ever fought a dragon or lived in Gilead) and brings it into our shared understanding (we've all experienced symptoms of fear or faced moments when we felt oppressed).
When is realism too much? Well likely when it no longer serves the story. If you want to give us a story about a farmhand becoming a great king and hero of good, then showing us realistic emotions he might feel along the way is a strong way to establish a connection. But we likely don't need a detailed explanation of his tax policy and governing style because the story isn't about politics, it's about the hero's journey. On the other hand, if your goal is to write political intrigue in a fantasy world then you might want a more realistic perspective on kingdom management.
Sometimes "realism" means "turning something exciting into something mundane," too. And that's the kind of stuff I like sometimes. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man 2 movie does a great job at showing the everyday life of a superhero, with some of the exciting parts turned more realistic by showing what happens when Peter Parker temporarily loses his powers. That's the sort of "realism" that genre fiction sometimes needs more of.