How Important is Realism In Fiction?

Yes, not ONLY is the pentagram the wrong way up, but that abyssal horror from beyond the realms of time and space should have THREE eyes!

Yes, not ONLY is the pentagram the wrong way up, but that abyssal horror from beyond the realms of time and space should have THREE eyes!

A few weeks ago, I found myself reading TV Tropes yet again. Seriously, it’s one of the most addictive sites on the internet and it’s an absolute must-read for anyone who enjoys movies, comics, TV shows, computer games and/or novels.

Anyway, one of the things that always startles me whenever I read TV Tropes is the huge number of subtle things that are portrayed unrealistically in movies, games and TV shows. Most of these are things that I’d never really thought about before (eg: apparently defibrillators can’t re-start someone’s heart once it’s stopped, apparently most types of military rifles cannot be safely fired left-handed etc…). Seriously, there’s some pretty astonishing stuff on this site.

So, naturally, all of this stuff made me think about how important realism is when it comes to writing stories, making comics etc…

Of course, the actual answer to this question is “it depends”. For some stories, realism is very important and – for other stories (eg: fantasy and sci-fi stories) – it isn’t. So, there isn’t really a “one size fits all” rule when it comes to how realistic your story or comic should be. But, nonetheless, I thought that I’d give you my opinion on the subject.

Generally, I’d argue that realism can be a good thing – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story. What I mean by this is that, if something unrealistic works a lot better in your story than it’s realistic equivalent does – then it’s usually a good idea to go for the unrealistic thing.

The only real exception to this is if the unrealistic thing is something that most people would quickly recognise as unrealistic. For example, being able to drive an “ordinary” car at 400mph or something like that. But for things that most people won’t recognise as unrealistic, then it’s usually ok – although expect to get some fan mail from people who know what they’re talking about criticising the unrealistic parts of your story.

Likewise, if you get bogged down by meticulously researching every tiny detail of your story just to make sure that it is “realistic”, then this can easily get in the way of actually writing your story.

So, if it ever comes down to a choice between spending lots of time researching and spending lots of time writing, then it is always best to go with the latter – even if your story ends up being slightly unrealistic as a result.

In addition to this, unless your story is in a genre where realism is extremely important (eg: some types of historical fiction, some types of thriller fiction etc..), then most people expect fiction to be at least slightly unrealistic. Why? Because it’s fiction.

Because, if you want to read a dramatic story or tell a dramatic story, then confining yourself to things that can realistically happen can be fairly boring. Yes, dramatic things can happen in the real world – but they’re often nowhere near as dramatic as the things that people can conjure up using their imaginations. Likewise, most people read fiction to escape from their boring and “realistic” lives, so they expect a certain degree of unrealism.

Another interesting thing about realism in fiction is that you can also have a lot of fun with it too. If something is commonly depicted in an unrealistic way in fiction, then you can surprise your audience by portraying it realistically.

For example, many “satanic” pentagrams in horror movies, comics, videogames etc… are actually Wiccan pentagrams. In case you’re confused by this, Wicca is a peaceful and benevolent religion that (like me) doesn’t even believe in the existence of satan. But Wiccans often get a lot of crap because of misconceptions about their pentagram symbol, due to inaccurate portrayals of it in the horror genre.

So, if you want to include a realistic description of a satanic pentagram in your horror story or horror comic, then it should look like this instead. Or, at the very least, it should be an upside-down version of the Wiccan symbol.

Not only that, getting small “realistic” details right (when most other writers get them wrong) can also make your audience feel that you’re more knowledgeable than most other authors are too.

So, whilst, as I said earlier – there’s no real “one size fits all” rule when it comes to realism. Don’t be afraid to be “unrealistic” if you feel that it’s more dramatic, interesting, easier to write about etc…..


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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