The Value of Realism in Fiction

We’ve all met that person.  You know, the one who rolls their eyes at certain movies because they’re not “realistic”.  It happens a lot with scientific accuracy (which I did a post about here), but what I’m talking about this time is a more, all-encompassing realism.  Much like I said with scientific accuracy, I think realism has to support the movie in some way.  Making a movie hyper-realistic for no other reason than to be realistic is a bad move.

Look at it in this sense.  In a horror movie, people do stupid and unrealistic things.  It happens all the time.  Instead of walking away from the scary noise or trying to get help, they inevitably go straight toward it and usually end up dying in horrible fashion.  Yes, this is terribly illogical and unrealistic.  But would there really be a movie if they didn’t behave like that?  Let’s take a look.



The answer is, of course, no.

For a horror movie to work, people sometimes have to do stupid things.  Which is why, even though I really don’t like the characters in the first Paranormal Activity movie, I accept that some of the things they do have to be done for the sake of the movie (although the domestic drama comes across as little more than annoying and a waste of the viewer’s time).  If every character in every found footage movie immediately turned off the camera, we wouldn’t have a movie to watch.  It’s an annoying conceit for a lot of people.  I get that.  But if it bothers you that much, stop watching those types of movies.  No one wants to hear you complain over and over again, least of all the people actually trying to enjoy it.

But realism doesn’t just apply to things like character actions or decision.  It can also apply in terms of character deaths.  I’ve often heard from people who are fans of the Game of Thrones series that they like how many characters get killed off.  No character is safe.  Personally, I only read a little bit of the first book and have only seen the first episode of the HBO show, so I’m a little out of my element here.  But what I’ve found more often than not is that the character deaths are all people really talk about with Game of Thrones.  It makes me wonder.  Does that really make a good show/book?

Often Game of Thrones fans will critique other shows, saying that they’re not interesting to watch because you know that Character X is going to survive at the end of the episode because he’s the main character.  This is true, and it is often the subject of a lot of jokes such as the “plot bubble”, a magic invisible shield which surrounds the character and makes him immune to bullets and other dangers.  There’s a little something called “suspension of disbelief” that I think a lot of those types of people are forgetting about.  Part of the reason why we like watching these shows is because we suspend our disbelief.  Of course on the inside we know that with most shows certain character will never die unless it’s a season finale or something.  But we don’t care.  We just enjoy the ride.

If you can’t suspend your disbelief once in a while, how can you really enjoy any kind of fiction?

I’m sure even Game of Thrones has highly unrealistic elements to it (such as the ratio of absolute jerks to good people being like ten to one……on a good day).  And yet, it’s one of the most popular TV shows out there right now.  I would argue that if you’re going to complain about realism you might as well not watch any television shows, because at some point they all become unrealistic.

On a funny note, I’ve had friends who commonly watch anime complain about realism in a lot of shows.  You watch shows where people fly around throwing giant balls of spiritual energy at people, and YOU’RE COMPLAINING ABOUT REALISM?!

Often if you look up the definition of fiction, you’ll find that one of the key points is that it is not based in reality or fact.  It is a work of the imagination.  Fiction was never meant to be hyper-realistic.  Fiction was meant to be entertaining.  Sure, realistic elements can be used (a lot of modern science fiction movies have based themselves in plausible science), but there is always going to be an element of the fantastical or unrealistic.  At some point, writers have to bend realism to allow for certain things to happen.  The plot isn’t going to be interesting if the reader isn’t always present at the important events.  Sometimes, that means that a character has to be in certain places at the right time, often in an unrealistic way.  And besides, if a story was truly realistic, we’d only be following one character period throughout the whole thing.  And we know that’s not true, because a story will often bounce between multiple characters (like, oh I don’t know, Game of Thrones).

The bottom line is that if you want to enjoy fiction, you have to accept it as fiction.  That’s why it’s called fiction, and not reality.


Well that’s all I have for you this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week everyone.


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