Realism is overrated

October 2, 2013

Every time I hear someone complaining about how a story isn’t realistic, I die a little on the inside.

Realism? Reality is boring, aimless, unsatisfying, and full of people acting like idiots. Perhaps realism in fiction is overrated.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.


  1. Reply


    Realism has many faces. True, total realism is usually undesirable – people reach for fiction in order to escape from reality for a while, after all. But many authors go to the other extreme – a complete lack of realism. Like completely disregarding physics or biology, almost as if they automatically assumed that *nobody* except for nerds and experts have any idea about basic physical phenomena and they are allowed to do whatever they want.

    I know, I know, the Rule of Cool, but you can’t throw out entire realism just because you’re too lazy to do a bit of research and thinking how you can make your dream scenario work while retaining at least basic realism. This reeks of laziness and I-only-want-to-tell-stories approach. An author should not only think about the story and characters, but also about the world and how its presented.

    Just think about Tolkien, Harry Potter or even manga/anime series such as Fullmetal Alchemist. They all involve magic, fantasy and all sort of unrealistic characters and phenomena. But they also have a set of rules that bind these worlds. That’s why nobody cries that Lord of the Rings is unrealistic – since it always tries to follow its own rules.

    But when you create a work about politics, or perhaps about science – I damn well expect you to stick realism, otherwise, what’s the point? Star Trek (any movie or series) is a fun franchise, which explores many social phenomena and provides audience with plenty of action, but utterly fails as science-fiction – there’s so little science in it it’s laughable. I’m also looking at you, To Aru Kagaku no Railgun (even though I love the adventures of Kuroko and her Onee-sama, the lack of realistic physics in a show titled A Certain Scientific Railgun makes me cringe every now and then).

    Want an example of a scene that is over-the-top, cool AND realistic at the same time? Take Evangelion 3.33. The opening scene. It’s a wonderfully choreographed piece, with tons of action and excitement. And yet, NASA experts confirmed that it’s almost 100% realistic in terms of astrophysics – despite the fact that it features humanoid mechs, which are essentially live beings, fighting against semi-sentient defence systems in low Earth orbit.

    Realistic characters and situations can be just as interesting, but they need *a bit* more effort – something that can be a deal-breaker in the modern world of here-and-now ASAP.

    1. Reply


      There’s a difference between consistency and realism. I’m in favor of internal consistency, not always of realism; sometimes, but I think it’s overrated.

      I’ll talk about that more in upcoming posts, though. For now I just wanted to get the idea out there and see what ire it kicks up.

  2. Reply

    Goodwill Wright

    Well, I am not too sure how “realism” would be defined in terms of fictional works, so I really can’t do any constructive commenting (if I ever could do it).

    And I agree with you differentiating between consistency and realism.

    All in all (probably a very redundant thing to hear) but I guess it boils down to your target audience… Obviously, regardless of what one may feel about this topic, you are going to get people who can never look at a story that is “non-realistic” and take it seriously or even enjoy it at worst.

    1. Reply


      To your last point, but of course. There will always be some people who won’t accept anything but the most realistic of stories, but that’s okay, because if you’re writing a story grounded in any unrealistic elements – as I am – then they’re not in your target market. And if they’re never going to like what you write, who cares? That’s their concern. I just ignore em.

  3. Reply


    The fantasy genre is a long time favorite of mine. So, I’m fine with things bending, breaking and outright destroying the rules of reality. In fact, the latter can give me quite the raging hard on, if done correctly. However, it’s kind of hard to ignore consistency as if it were a separate topic when a lack of consistency is essentially just breaking the “rules of reality” within a specific work (anime, manga, etc.)

    Back to the main topic, the thing that kills me is when a story tries pull rules of our reality (actual reality) into a story to make it more “realistic” and then uses a bunch of BS logic to explain it away. Doing so basically means you’re assuming your audience is full of moronic idiots who don’t know any better (whether this is true or not). Simply put, it’s insulting and just generally bad writing to do so. If you really can’t find a logical way to explain things away (in other words, lack the skill to make a proper logical explanation because you’re either not smart enough or didn’t plan ahead and have already created logical contradictions) there’s two ways you can still deal with it that any writer with any sense should be capable of.

    The first option is not to even try explaining it. Let the audience come up with their own theories. This can be fairly effective but a less skilled writer will still manage to create inconsistencies and plot holes by not at least having their own idea of how things work and following it. Choosing not to explain things can work out really well or really poorly depending on how it’s used.

    The other option is to just say it’s magic. It’s a bit of a cop out but in the right setting it can not only fit the story but actually make a lot more sense than trying to explain it with real world technology or theoretical future/alien technology. It also allows you to write your own rules of how “reality” works and effectively bend reality to fit the plot of your story. Want that BFG to be more powerful than the laws of science allow? All you have to do is power that baby with magic and it’s all right. Why? Of course, it works because it’s magic. You can even reinforce the magic with your own pseudo-science since magic and any laws of logic applied to it work exactly in the way you want it to work because it’s magic.

    TLDR; Reality may be overrated but dragging it into a fictional story and screwing it up is the sauce encrusted around the mouths of bad writers.

    1. Reply


      Therein lies the delightful insanity of the human condition – if you try to explain something and get close, it slides into uncanny valley and we’ll pick it apart seven ways to sunday, but if you wave a wand and go “it’s magic!” then we’ll shrug and come along. That’s probably why religion incites so much more fervor than math and science do – they’re the kind of stories we’re most equipped to deal with.

  4. Reply


    I don’t really like it when writers break rules just because. Even if your setting allows for stuff not to adhere to how the real world is, there has to be a reason (a REALLY good reason) as to why any “rule of reality” should be broken in a work of fiction.

    I’d even suggest a “litmus test”:
    a) Do you need to break the rule for the story to make sense?
    b) Is this really the only way you can go around this problem?
    c) Are your story’s inner rules still consistent after this rule break?
    d) Is it still within the boundaries of logic?
    e) Can you explain it concisely?
    And lastly:
    f) Did your proofreaders, betas, and/or editor(s) let it pass as well, or maybe didn’t even catch it?

    If the answer to all 6 is “yes”, then by all means, do the impossible, see the invisible, touch the untouchable, and break the unbreakable. If at least one of the answers is “no”, then hit the brakes – it’s just not gonna work.

    See, the audience generally isn’t as stupid as you think, so you shouldn’t treat them like they are. If you play with their willing suspension of disbelief, they’re gonna think you’re trying to get away with sloppy writing. You don’t always need to give reasons as to why things happen the way they do on your story – as long as everything you do is consistent and explicable internally, then chances are people will understand (and some will even theorize) and approve.

    However, there are rules that not even the most intricate worldbuilding will let you break: character rules.

    Character development notwithstanding, your characters are gonna have to be the most rigid of them all. They drive the story (because -they’re the ones driving the story-, right? RIGHT?!) and they shape it through their observation and their analysis (this is especially true if you’re using 1st-person narration). They must be the most consistent of them all, and their actions must have a reason and must hold meaning. All the damn time.

    So it’s very upsetting if the outgoing character suddenly acts shy in a scene when there’s no reason (situational nervousness? infatuation? intimidation?); if the big brother whose family is everything to him suddenly does something very inconsiderate towards, say, his little sister; if the noble villain who doubts about taking lives senselessly uses excessive force in a battle without it being further discussed; if the alien lifeform suddenly decides to act in a way completely contrary to its self-preservation instinct ‘just because’; if the heroine who despises the villain with passion decides to forgive him easily after his change of heart. Among many other examples.

    1. Reply


      You’re talking about something completely different than I was. I was talking about unrealistic settings being a good thing rather than something to be scorned. If an author sets up rules for themselves, they should absolutely not break them unless they break them in an extremely well-considered way. To do otherwise would be sloppy writing, as you say.

      As for characters, I actually disagree – within a certain tolerance level, they can act and react much more flexibly the rules of the world can be broken. Yes, if they go 180 degrees out of character, that’s not going to work, and suspension of disbelief will SNAP. They can weave far more than the rules of the world can, bowing to the rule of funny or the rule or cool or simply being in a slightly different mood than normal. After all, people really DO that, so you have flexibility with characters.

      Not too much, though. If an author sets up rules for themselves, they ought to follow them, except when they shouldn’t. The best authors always find exceptions to some rules. It’s almost a rule!

  5. Reply


    As someone whose introduction to “worlds of wonder” was Star Wars: A New Hope, I get you, Stilts. A story is “real” when you are in it, following the main heroes’ lives like they were your own, wishing you could be like them or help them some way, and understanding why they do the things they do.

    Declaring a story is not “real” because it’s not the Great American Novel, or 300 pages of intense navel gazing by the protagonist, or treats the future as being brighter and better than a giant polluted slum with nifty toys, seems to me to be a real cop-out and loss of imagination.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *