The Abuse of Realism

Any writer- whether you’re penning a swashbuckling, steampunk romp through the clouds with Victorian gentlemen poking poison-tipped canes at zeppelin-hungry dragons, or simply a meditative portrait of an unraveling sexless lesbian marriage in Bucharest- needs to have a good handle on that eternally disrespected noun “realism”. Before I continue writing my current novel today, I wanted first to do a short piece on how you can still have a story that’s “realistic”, even as it throws the laws of physics out the window and into a river of magma teeming with hammerhead sharks that breathe radioactive lasers.

Let me ask you, have you ever been watching a show set in a fantastical world like Game of Thrones and thought to yourself “That’s just not realistic”, or better yet “How did she know where to find Jon Snow?”. Of course you have. I was watching one of my favorite shows recently- The Walking Dead– and as the season concluded I found that I and almost everyone I know uttered an audible groan. Has this show started consciously making fun of itself? I wondered. One moment that stood out was the episode where our heroes kept reiterating how they only needed to kill the main antagonist, that nothing else mattered. In the next scene said antagonist brazenly opens a door onto a balcony with about twenty assault rifles aimed squarely on his big brass gonads, only for the heroes to sit there and listen to him mock them. But take that or any of the increasingly ridiculous moments from this once gritty drama and lament its approach to realism and you’ll often be met with the response “You’re going to complain about realism in a show with brain-chomping zambers?”

I personally find the word “believability” to be more helpful than “realism” when swatting aside such retorts. Audiences and readers will accept zombies, dragons, and what have you, because their existence makes sense within the context of the world. Applying realism to your story is not some kind of creative shackle; you can add as many fantastical elements as you like. You, as the creator, can have fun with creating your own set of physical laws in the process of world-building. You just have to be consistent, and not break your own laws. In the Star Wars universe, Jedi can’t teleport themselves, but in Harry Potter, wizards “apparate”. If Luke Skywalker suddenly started hopping from planet to planet like a great big interdimensional space bunny, then the audience would start to feel disconnected from the story. At that moment, you’ve yanked them out of their immersion.

The most important thing about creating “believability” in a story is to carefully craft the relationships between people and institutions. That’s where real life and fiction from other genres can help you with your story. To write fiction that resonates, your characters and the dynamics between them have to resemble believable human behavior. I’ve seen countless authors describe the same thing- that same, all-important element of a story- when giving advice to young writers. I was watching an interview where author Shelby Foote reflects on the novels of William Faulkner. How much truth is in them? Do they reflect life in the Deep South during the early 20th century? Foote answered that the stories don’t strive to be truthful in the journalistic sense; they just have convey something that is “basically real”. I think what Foote means by that is that a good story will communicate something about the human experience that resonates with people. As readers, we can imagine the angry Jason Compson; the way he and his brothers are so profoundly affected by their sister’s free-spirited sexuality. We find their inner conflicts compelling because we can imagine them each reacting the way they do to the events of the novel.

Another author I was listening to recently was Salman Rushdie, who echoed these sentiments. Using an example of a flying carpet, he said that a writer must approach writing about such a thing in a realistic way in order to make it compelling. To make a scene about riding on a flying carpet interesting and to make it resonate, you have to think about little things such as how the rider keeps his or her balance, or the way the surface of the carpet might become uneven as it ripples in the wind. Rushdie goes on to say that the truth of fiction is not literal truth, since the premise of fiction is that it is unreal. Truth in fiction refers to the way it acts as a mirror to the human condition, and tells us something about the way we interact with each other.

At the moment I’m writing a coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist starts working in a kitchen. I’ve recently started working at a pub in my hometown of Nailsea (in the UK) and I’m trying to absorb everything I can. I go out of my way to know the source of every smell, the name of every item, and I pay special attention to the way my new coworkers talk with each other. I make a note of every phone call, every order, every supplier that shakes hands with the head chef. Even if I weren’t writing a book that features a kitchen in it, I think a kitchen is such a visceral and interesting environment to be in as a writer. It’s like a prison or a circus or a whorehouse; so alive with energy, where everything titillates the senses, where every day is different. As I came towards the end of my shift the other day, a friend asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my day.

“Probably more writing,” I said bashfully.

At that moment the head chef came past and quipped “Whatchya gonna write about tonight? Confessions of a Dishwasher?”

I laughed, and thought to myself: not too far off, actually. But the kitchen I write in my book doesn’t have to be a real kitchen, it just has to seem real. And I think the same is true for whatever environment you want to create; don’t worry about recreating your inspiration in exact detail- just include enough interesting observations to make it a place that could exist. Then, hopefully, you have achieved that much desired quality of believability.

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