Scene from Steven Universe: Steven and Lapis Lazuli sit contemplating the stars Lapis wants to reach

How much realism should you demand from your writing?

I have developed a bad habit of getting too hung up on the realism of the fiction I consume.

I don’t mean that it has to portray the real world – I’m a fantasy and sci-fi fan, after all – but I find myself nitpicking anything that looks like a logical flaw in a story.

“That’s stupid,” I say of some character choice or plot point. “Why did this character pal around with that one for half the plot if she was planning to turn on him all along? Why not just kill him at the start and get on with her evil scheme?”

Serving the story

The answer is, often, because the story works better if she does that – and these days I recognise the same thing happening in my own writing. Sometimes my characters do illogical things, sometimes the world works in unrealistic ways, because it serves the story I want to tell.

Sometimes I hold my stories up against reality and all I can see is the ways they don’t seem to make sense. The unlikely coincidences; the eccentric characterisations; the cringe-worthy over-simplification of what would be a complex and nuanced cultural/political/social landscape in real life.

But I think I’m being too hard on myself.

How realistic is realism, anyway?

In the real world, of course, people do illogical things all the time, because we’re messy bundles of conflicting drives that regularly lead us to make decisions that, from a purely rational perspective, make no sense.

And the real world can work in ways that seem illogical, for lots of reasons: because of systems put in place by the aforementioned fallible humans; because non-human systems like climate or nature are much more complex and harder to understand than most of us believe; or simply through the kinds of impossible, one-in-a-million coincidences that, with infinite time and space, are bound to crop up on a regular basis.

Truth is, as they say, stranger than fiction. But fiction is by far the more constrained of the two – unlike reality, fiction has to tell a story.

Reality is not story

Real life is not narratively satisfying. Its morals are opaque. Its lessons are contradictory. Things don’t happen in an orderly narrative fashion – they just happen. In the real world, moments that feel like revolutions may not actually change anything, while moments that feel like resolutions are rarely the end.

Stories are what we tell to create meaning out of the mess of events and interactions that make up reality. Whether they’re the interpretations we bring to situations in our own lives or the “realities” presented in fiction, stories take a selective slice of reality and use that to justify the messages contained within.

I know that some writers specifically strive to evoke in their readers that sense of the randomness of life, but that’s a stylistic choice; it shouldn’t be a yardstick to beat oneself with, especially when some of the more compelling stories out there can only be told by creating their own very specific internal logic.

Two very different realities

In the TV series Steven Universe, there is practically no problem that can’t be solved by talking things out. Talking resolves every disagreement, heals the most gaping of emotional divides, transforms enemies into friends on a regular basis.

That’s not realistic. But it’s beautiful, and it’s hopeful, and it reminds us, even when any attempt at finding common ground seems hopeless, to try.

You can argue that Steven Universe is a kids’ show (though if you think that makes its storytelling simple, you clearly haven’t been watching it). But in N. K. Jemisin’s powerful – and very adult – Broken Earth trilogy, the level of prejudice directed towards one group of people, the orogenes, by the rest of humanity is almost as cartoonish in its intensity and universality.

The peoples of the world, regardless of nation or culture, are united in their hatred of orogenes. The few exceptions shown are people willing to look the other way, to tolerate or ignore a particular orogene if they aren’t deemed to be causing trouble; there doesn’t appear to be anyone non-orogenic who looks at the way orogenes are treated and says, this is wrong, they don’t deserve this, orogenes are people too.

N. K. Jemisin is an African-American author writing from a very specific cultural perspective, and as a white writer I know I am not in a position to speak to what feels realistic from her point of view. But I suspect (I hope) that she does not see the real world as one in which oppressed minorities are entirely without allies, or where the best one can ever hope for from a member of the privileged majority is that they won’t actively participate in your oppression.

So I don’t think Broken Earth, either, is trying to be realistic. But it’s shocking, and it’s disturbing, and it forces us to think about all the ways a powerful majority can make life unliveable for those deemed to be different.

Neither Steven Universe or Broken Earth would be as meaningful as they are if they tried to cleave to some objective definition of reality. They forge their own paths, each wildly different, but each vital to the story being told and the messages within.

Make your own reality

Reality is a messy, weird place, much more so than we tend to remember when pointing at fiction and crying, “But that wouldn’t happen!”

It’s OK for characters to be illogical or settings to be unlikely. It’s OK for the turning point of a story to hinge on a one-in-a-million stroke of mis/fortune or coincidence. Done well, done believably,* it can make for much better storytelling that any attempt to create something that looks like what we expect reality to be.

Realism isn’t everything.


*There are, of course, departures from realism that can utterly sink a story. How to effectively render the unrealistic believable is a big question, and thus a subject for another post. Stay tuned.

Image source: Steven Universe Wiki
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