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.