One thing I have to make clear before I get started is that I’m not saying “realism sucks”. Every genre or style has its time and place. As much as I love fantasy, I’m open to all forms of the genre and I also adore classics/literary/contemporary fiction etc (not to mention the fact I like my historical fiction as realistic as possible). So, let’s just begin by saying yes, realism rocks just as hard as fantasy. Glad we could get that out of the way 😉
What I do mean, however, is that sometimes striving for realism takes over. While glaring errors can take you out of a story, sometimes criticism of contemporaries can get a little nitpicky (like, whether or not a particular school has a netball team or whatever). And I’ve written at length about why I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for fantasy. More recently, there’s even been a particular obsession with real experience. Which, you know, can be a problem since not every book is (or should be) an autobiography.
For starters, writing is often about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s kind of impossible if you’re never allowed to think outside your own bubble. And while I’m not saying poach anything you like, or that everyone is capable of doing this, some people really are amazing at putting themselves in the mind’s eye of someone totally unlike them (one of the best examples being Rowling’s depiction of abuse, when, as far as I know, she hasn’t experienced this herself).
The other huge problem is how subjective this can be. While one reader might give you the go ahead, another might say you got it totally wrong. This can be even more troubling when you consider the fact that even if you have the same experience, it doesn’t mean you relate to it the same way. It’s frankly horrifying to see authors attacked for writing about their own experiences- which happened to Leigh Bardugo recently over Ninth House. I’m gonna be real: I lean heavily on my own experience in my writing, so it strikes a nerve to see people lashing out at writers over this. I shouldn’t have to point this out, because it is fairly obvious, but here we go: you can’t make claims about someone’s experience without knowing the individual intimately (and even then, it’s pretty rude). In fact, I’ve had people do the “ugh you don’t know about this, so shut up!” routine to me over things I *definitely* do know about (though, of course, they don’t know that). I’d say it’s safer not to assume you know a stranger’s life story, but that’s just me 😉
What’s more, even if I’ve been critical of a book for being unrelatable, I find it really helpful to hear why other people got something out of it. Not everything can be relatable for everybody– so it’s cool if you disagree with me on something. It gives me a chance to hear another perspective.
Plus, a huge amount of this simply comes down to personal taste. That’s what I tried to get across when I wrote the post “Don’t Write X”- it’s just not possible to appeal to everyone- and that’s okay! I can accept, for instance, that some readers are into fantasy for the world building and complex systems- ergo hyper-realism is important to them. Just because it isn’t the case for me, doesn’t mean I get to rain on their parade and decide all books should be super fantastical. There’s room for both hard and soft magic systems! Similarly, I’ve heard one writer say they find it pulls them out of a contemporary if the names don’t match up to modern trends… whereas I’m all for the quirky names! Barring huge illogical inconsistencies and glaring errors, these things will always be hit or miss. It’s about finding the right readers for a particular book.
For me, books aren’t all about how precise they are; they’re about the endless possibilities they contain. And so I’m not going to obsess over the realism (especially cos even complex magic systems basically come down to *because magic* anyway 😉).
So, what do you think? Is realism the be-all and end-all for you? If not, where do you draw the line? Let me know in the comments!