(Un)Real (writing)

Time for another installment of my sporadic yet insightful posts on writing and storytelling.

In the past, I’ve commented on the dangers of “Realism” in fiction. Especially that brand of negative grimdark that so many people, both artists and audience, equate with realism. It seems that realism will be used to justify all kinds of unpleasantness in a story while rarely is it invoked for a positive effect. Sure, a person might get hit by a car on the way to reconcile with their one true love, but it’s also entirely possible for that same character to instead win the lottery. Realism is a handy tool for getting a character into and out of trouble and advancing a plot in any way the storyteller is too lazy to justify.

This is why I think it’s important to understand that realism is rarely the goal of a good story. This might seem contrary to how a story should be. It makes it seem like stories can make up their own rules as they like, and that we’re free to ignore the rules of reality as we know it when it suits our purposes.

Yes and no.

The first thing we have to address is that I am a fantasy and science fiction novelologist. Reality isn’t usually my primary concern when creating stories about vampires, robots, or raccoon gods. That doesn’t mean I’m allowed to just make everything up on the fly, and it doesn’t mean I can wave my hands and just solve a story problem by saying “a wizard did it.” Yet in nearly all cases, the rules that bind me aren’t that of reality but of drama, comedy, and satisfying story structure. Reality is a part of that, but not the biggest part.

The term “Reality” itself is loaded when it comes to storytelling. I break from reality all the time, and most of the time it’s obvious. If you happen to know a werewolf or a space squid from Neptune then maybe you have a different view of reality, but my stories are chock full of unreality. Those obvious bits of fantasy are acceptable to most everyone because we know from the start that they’re not meant to be realistic. But every story has its breaks, its genre conventions, its general rules.

Most realistic police procedurals don’t focus on paperwork though that’s a huge part of the job.

Most romances don’t give the hero a slight lazy eye.

Most horror stories don’t have the characters call the police and gun the monster down.

We’re so accustomed to these rules, we rarely even consider them rules in the first place. And, yet, these are all fantasies in their own way. Fiction is full of brilliant serial killers, dashing pirate kings, monsters that lurk in the shadows, and other things that we accept without blinking. Yet even in more grounded stories, there are usually rules at work that define the genre and our expectations. Even literary fiction, with its lack of focus, its random events, and its tendency to have stuff just happen, is playing by its own rules, not subverting them.

This doesn’t mean reality is always unimportant. If I’m writing a story about a normal man who gets shot seventeen times in the chest and have him get up and walk away, that’s going to destroy the logic of the story. If aliens show up and capture the drug lord mastermind out of the blue, that’ll ring untrue. A monster story where the monster has a random heart attack and collapses probably won’t work. But each of those examples are entirely plausible in terms of options for the storyteller.

It’s important to remember that fiction is made up. You’d think this would be obvious, but then try criticizing a story’s choices and you’ll often run into a strange opposition where people will talk about it as if it actually happened. Named after the aliens from Galaxy Quest, The Thermian Argument goes something like this:

“Superman shouldn’t kill people.”

“But he didn’t have a choice. Zod was going to kill that family.”

The criticism is one of a story choice for a character. The rebuttal is talking about the story choice the writer made. Yet these are two different arenas of discussion. It’s perfectly acceptable to talk about each and how they relate to each other, but they function in different ways. If I suggest that Superman, as a character, shouldn’t kill people because A) it goes against the themes he often stands for and B) it makes it way too easy for him to solve all his problems in the future because a Superman who is willing to kill when he “must” is virtually unstoppable and the rebuttal is he had no choice. It’s talking about fantasy as if it’s reality.

Nothing in Man of Steel happened. It’s all made up. We understand that when it comes to crazy stuff like flying and heat vision, but it applies equally to the events that take place. The “reality” of Zod and Superman’s struggle is just as fictional as everything else.

Even the creators of Man of Steel understand this. They didn’t have Superman kill because he had no choice. They wanted him to kill someone (for whatever reasons they might have had) and created a situation where he killed. It wasn’t as if the screenwriters put Superman in that moment and were powerless to change it. They are the literal gods of that universe. Nothing happens without their approval. This is the dirty little secret of fiction that gets overlooked all the time. Its reality is defined only by the writer (and director and actors) and the audience.

“Reality” is only a tool toward the experience of a story, and that’s the truth. The goal of nearly every story is to create an experience, not reality. And this is why, whenever I hear someone praising “Realism” in a story, I think they’re probably missing the point of the story in the first place.

Stories are about feelings.

There are no exceptions.

Even something like Lord of the Rings with all its worldbuilding and volumes of history is popular because it draws people into it. The history is part of that, sure, but if it was only history, we wouldn’t care. You can write the history of your imaginary universe or lay out how your lightsabers work in excruciating detail, and it still doesn’t mean jack if you don’t get me to invest in your story some way. And that way is feelings. Stories without emotion in some form tend to fail. That emotion can be anything from happiness to sadness to dread to anger.

Reality isn’t how you do that, and a slavish devotion to the concept isn’t justification for missing out on what makes us like stories in the first place. Don’t make your story “Realistic”. Make it good. If it happens to conform to reality as we know it that’s fine. But it isn’t the goal.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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