Realism in fiction

Realism in fiction is an ongoing debate. Readers and reviewers alike often invoke this argument, usually in pointing out flaws. Authors seem to universally loathe such a criticism, frequently referring to extensive research or personal experience. Yet even these arguments are not always met with positive reactions and readers are likely to still claim otherwise, regardless of what an author says.

These days I tend to give a proven author the benefit of the doubt and no matter how improbable or ridiculous a detail or scenario may seem – I assume the author knows what they’re talking about. The caveat to this of course is if a book is poorly written or horribly edited then I’ll assume the author clearly couldn’t be bothered with realism or facts.

But this brings me to the crux of the “reality in fiction” argument. It’s not really about what is realistic so much as what is believable.

Often a character will say or do something ridiculous and the reader response is easily “no one would do that!” It doesn’t really matter if the author witnessed this behavior firsthand or imperially knew something to be true. The end result is that the reader just doesn’t or won’t believe it. No real argument to the contrary will satisfy as the reader has already labeled that behavior or dialogue or situation as silly. Even showing proof that such a disease or issue or behavior or whatever exists, the reader is very likely to disregard that information and change the label of their criticism from unrealistic to just stupid, which is not a solution to anything.

Similarly, including obscure diseases or symptoms into a story may be factually correct but the more bizarre or unusual the detail/behavior is – the more the average reader may not buy into it. The solution of course isn’t to never go for anything out of the ordinary. Stories don’t have to be universally bland and homogeneous to be believable. While some genres have to stick to very rigid restrictions, m/m is not one of them and frequently authors try to push boundaries. This is a very good thing for so many reasons but it does put the onus on the story to entice a reader to want to believe in whatever they’re selling/telling. It’s the story’s responsibility to make a seemingly improbable detail or piece of dialog work.

Simply refuting a claim with “well it’s happened to me” or “I’ve heard of it” is no real defense at all. That’s a personal experience or information that we, the readers, don’t have. I think of it similar to historically set novels. These authors usually do extensive research into the time period to get it right. However there are countless “wrong” details that slip by because the readers just don’t know any better.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told in my life, “I’ve never heard of that before.” Regardless of the issue referred to – anything from car/computer/electronic problems to work issues, even rare familial diseases – someone is always uttering that infuriating phrase. It’s ridiculous to me because I’m not that unique nor is any situation that I encounter (let alone almost every one!). My point is that I know something is true/real but others, even trained others, don’t believe it despite all my assertions.

This is even doubly true in fiction. A story doesn’t have to be bland to be true but if it’s going for something unusual or even out of the norm, the story has to sell the reader on it’s believability; regardless of the inherent truth. Whether the character is over the top ridiculous or a pudgy hero landing a hunk, readers want to buy into the fantasy and fiction. But it’s on the story/author to make it happen.

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5 thoughts on “Realism in fiction

  1. Tam says:

    *clap clap clap* (not the venereal disease)

    I think you summed it up for me in “realistic so much as what is believable”. But on the other hand, I suppose what’s believable to me, may not be to someone else (or vice versa).

    I just had a discussion on GR today about foreskins (I never thought the day would come when I would type that sentence). Someone said “why in m/m books is the guy never freaked out when he comes face to face (dick?) with a foreskin, especially Americans who are almost universally (although less so these days) circumcised”? My response is how could any normal healthy 25 year old, be unaware of an uncircumcised penis? Do you not have the internet? Do you not read the news? Didn’t Oprah discuss circumcision? Okay, maybe you’ve never seen one before in person, you find it interesting, maybe a bit weird and you’re not sure what to do with it, but being freaked out? Have you not heard of Tumblr? Internet porn. Then someone said “Well I have many friend under 30 who don’t even use e-mail or own a computer.” WTF? Who are these weirdos you are friends with? LOL

    So for her, the idea of someone being shocked, of NEVER having seen an uncut penis before, would not be unrealistic. To me that’s just lame. *shrug*

    It does annoy me when something really odd is noticed by many people (not just me) and the author comes back and says “But I really did get meningitis as a kid from a squirrel bite and I’m the only person in the US ever to have that.” Umm. So how would I possibly have known that? Maybe you should have mentioned that in the forward because it’s so preposterous and obscure, no average reader would be expected to believe it. *shrug*

    I don’t want perfect realism, that’s my life and boring as hell, but as a reader, I shouldn’t be rolling my eyes while reading either. There are ways to be unique and creative without being so out there that people think you’ve lost it.

    Holy cow, I’m Ranty McRanterson lately on everyone’s blog. Sorry. LOL

  2. Yes, I agree too. Although I can sympathise with authors who may get frustrated at accusations of unbelievability, when it’s all down to the personal experience of the reader.

    I’ve often said in reviews that I’ve found that certain situations, or the way the characters speak or behave, have rung false with me. This can be a cultural thing too because being British I have slightly different codes for behaviour so anyone who doesn’t fit my own cultural experience can seem unbelievable.

    One huge believability problem for me is when the characters fall in love too soon. I can’t buy into love at first sight, or insta-love, but I know readers who can. An author has to work hard indeed to make me believe that two characters are in for the happy ever after when they’ve known each other less than a week.

  3. Thanks for really clarifying the difference for me – I tend to say things like “that’s not realistic” about situations in books, but what I really mean is “the author didn’t make that believable”.

    It makes me think of books by Charles de Lint – he writes urban fantasy, but the original style of urban fantasy (in which the city/location is almost a character in the book, and the protagonists aren’t all clomping around in black leather and weapons, but tend to be normal people in unusual situations). By the end of a Charles de Lint book, I almost believe the shadowy motion I catch out of the corner of my eye is truly something magical. Magic is hardly realistic, but he sure makes it believable. 🙂

  4. Antonella says:

    Kassa, thank you for your thoughts on the subject.

    I had to think about one of the most unrealistic stories I heard: a young woman woke up with belly ache and had to be brought to the hospital where she underwent surgery because… she had swallowed a pen *as she was sleeping*. It was believable, but just because I saw the scar.

    Jenre, I’m with you on insta-love!

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