Sure as a comma launches a clause, wherever writers gather, the topic of realism is soon to follow. The elbow-patched lit snob declares something like, “the only true fiction is real.” Possibly there’s some agreement from the historical fiction camp. But the fantasy writers leap up in protest, and the romance writers heave their bosoms, and the wild-eyed speculative guy isn’t sure where to start objecting, because you might not “get it.”
More than once I’ve seen the crime writers conflicted when it comes to realism. Maybe it’s because crime writing itself is inherently in the same conflict. Authentic details are central to the story. Clues, forensics, ballistics, all the stuff readers know, crave or may fact-check. If a investigation procedure or police tech component is wrong, or if the M.E. declares the weapon caliber by examining the entry wound, the story loses credibility among readers who treasure realism.
And yet our Hero/Heroine can’t be too real. Come on, if real PI work was a page-turning thrill ride, we’d all be gumshoes. If we really wrote lowlife career criminals, there could be no antiheroes. No, our Hero/Heroine must be have stage appeal, and the dark streets they venture down be set for story.
Recently I was drawn into one of those realism conversations. When asked my opinion, I replied what I always reply: “Write what you can get away with.” (Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition, you grammar realists. Would you rather read “Write those things with which you can get away?”)
Is realism in fiction a good thing? Absolutely. Laudable. A big yes.
So unrealism is bad, then. Right? Not so fast, my friend.
What matters is purpose. The only good fiction is, well, good fiction. Realism is a story element. How real a story are you trying to tell?
Police procedural? Study the manuals and schedule a ridealong. Set in Victorian London? Get the streets and customs right. Set in Ramses II’s palace? Befriend an Egyptologist. Set in a noir spin on Arrakis with an orc detective? Okay, now you’ve got some freedom.
Some, not complete, because always the world needs to be built.
I wonder if some writers get hung up equating realism with setting. That’s like bringing home a box of Bisquik and declaring the pancakes are ready.
I write about real places, so I bust my butt to get the setting right. If I’ve been there, I’ll study my pictures and notes. I’ll read blogs and guidebooks, walk the streets via Google Earth, watch movies set there. Every scene in “Aix to Grind” was born of my scouting the location. Every trick our crooks try sprung from research. I got the details as right as I could–so I could take my liberties elsewhere.
Place accuracy is a crucial first step toward setting. A bored little girl falls through a rabbit hole into the strange and curious Wonderland. Authenticity is step two. Every Wonderlander Alice meets at the tea party is doing as the Wonderlanders do. Then there’s world-building. Alice is hoofing it from a rather disturbing tea party when she comes across giant playing cards painting the roses white. On account of the Queen of Hearts. Every story has its world ruled by its unique laws of physics and nature, no matter how real or short the story or how inferred by the narrative. In Lewis Carroll, it was Wonderland. In Raymond Chandler, it was Los Angeles. Two masterpieces of setting, one born of painstakingly constructed, the other painstakingly experienced.
Wonderland isn’t a product of realism (consult a doctor if you’re seeing giant playing cards and Mad Hatters). Carroll, Tolkien, Homer, Shakespeare, etc. all bent reality to tell their story.
For that matter, Chandler’s L.A. isn’t exactly the height of realism. Sure, the buildings were on the right corners, and the traffic was heavy on Sepulveda at the right times, but so infused with ambience, his L.A. becomes impressionist:
The poinsettia shoots tap-tapped dully against the front wall. The clothes line creaked vaguely at the side of the house. The ice cream peddler went by ringing his bell. The big new handsome radio in the corner whispered of dancing and love with a deep soft throbbing note like the catch in a torch singer’s voice.
–Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely
Passages like that can blind you with style. Chandler was real where it mattered, the same thing real about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The emotions. The human stakes. Discovering the deeper self. Striving to do what’s right in a messed-up world. That’s true storytelling. That’s real, man.
So the elbow-patched snob was right after all? Kind of, but be careful giving even that much affirmation. There would be no living with them. You’d show up at the next writers’ meeting, and our emboldened snob will be lambasting Lewis Carroll or Tolkien or that frigging Homer for their unrealistic fiction. Or Chandler, that literary sneakthief!
To which I’d say: a century later, and we’re still talking about their stories. As classics.
Lack of realism?
I think they got away with it.