Well, I ended up thinking about the topic of realism and fiction a few days earlier. This is mostly because, whilst trying to read when I was in a really good mood, I suddenly noticed how miserable a lot of novels (and, by extension, films too) can be. How stories in almost every genre often tend to include lots of woe, bad luck, sorrow, suffering, angst, anger and other such things.
At first, I was just ready to write this off as just the “rules” that fiction follows. After all, sites like TV Tropes list all sorts of “unrealistic” things that turn up in films surprisingly often. These “unrealistic” things are usually there as a type of visual shorthand that instantly clarifies things for the viewer – kind of like how, in stylised comics and illustrations, water is often shown to be blue – even though it is only actually blue when it is directly beneath a blue sky or in a blue container.
But, when we see a puddle of blue liquid in a stylised drawing, we instantly think “water”. So, even though it might be unrealistic (since water is transparent, not blue), it is a way to get information across to the audience in a quick and easy fashion.
This simplification can also be used to update older things and make them more accessible to modern audiences. For example, I happened to watch this absolutely fascinating Open University video where a professor and his son recreate the original pronunciations that actors used in Shakespeare plays in the 16th century. Although these old pronunciations add a few extra rhymes and/or crude jokes to the plays, actors usually use “unrealistic” modern pronunciations these days because it is easier for modern audiences to understand them.
But, going back to what I was originally talking about, why are fictional worlds often unrealistically grim or harsh?
Well, a lot of it has to do with contrast, characters, conflict and emotional tone. In short, not only are conflicts (including everything from emotional conflict to violent conflict) an instant source of compelling drama, but putting characters into conflict also allows for a lot of extra characterisation too. For example, the classic thriller novel thing where the main character ends up suffering numerous serious injuries and yet still manages to defeat the villain is there to show the reader how tough and/or determined the main character is. If they just spent the novel sitting around and drinking tea, then the reader wouldn’t learn this about them.
On a side note (this is a ramble, after all), this is also why modern superhero and action movies often feel a lot less dramatic when compared to both thriller novels and 1980s/90s action movies. Because modern film studios are aiming for a teenager-friendly “12A”/”PG-13” rating and/or because the main characters are immortal superheroes, you don’t really see this technique used in modern films as often. Sure, the main characters might get a small scratch or two, but that’s about it. This is kind of similar to playing a computer game with the “invulnerability” cheat code turned on – fun for the first five minutes, but devoid of any feeling of challenge or suspense.
In addition to this, contrast and emotional tone also play a huge role in why stories are often unrealistically grim or miserable. In short, moments of humour, joy, love, peace etc… are at their most powerful when they are contrasted with their opposites. It’s kind of like how the glow from a screen won’t be very noticeable outdoors in the middle of the day, but can illuminate a dark room in a really cool-looking way. Light stands out a lot more when it is surrounded by darkness. And the same thing is true for the “happy” parts of stories too.
But, more than this, the “grimness” in many stories is actually there to make the reader feel better too. This works in two ways. First of all, if the reader is going through a good or an ordinary time, then the grim emotional tone of many stories will make their everyday life feel better, safer, happier etc… by comparison. Secondly, if the reader is going through a terrible time, then a grim story can either offer them hope (if the main characters triumph) or provide a “safe” way to explore and deal with their emotions, since the story takes place at a slight “distance” from the reader.
In addition to this, one of the things that stories can do better than non-fiction ever can is showing things in a “larger than life” way, illuminating things for the audience in a way that facts can’t really do anywhere near as well.
The classic example of this is probably historical fiction. Although historical stories are always at least slightly unrealistic (since they involve crafting a linear narrative out of the randomness and complexity of real history), they give readers a much better impression of what it must have been like to live in the past than a simple list of dry historical facts will. Why? Because the reader is immersed in a dramatic story. Because they get to see how people from the time thought and talked. Because the characters make them care about what happened to people back then.
Yes, historical fiction is as much about commenting on the present day as it is about the past (eg: compare how Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” presents Tudor-era Britain as a very European country, whereas S.J. Parris’ “Sacrilege” presents it as a narrow-minded and xenophobic place), but fictional versions of the past can often feel a lot more vivid, interesting and “real” than simple historical facts can. So, because they are allowed to be unrealistic, stories can often do much more than reality would allow.
So, yes, the fact that stories are “unrealistic” is actually a good thing.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂