The Importance of Writing Unrealistically

5 Oct

Books are frequently lambasted for their failure to adhere to a realistic world view. Chances are you’ve seen a review that faults a book for just this, and it seems a valid point of criticism when the book is contemporary fiction, grounded firmly in our world. Things get slightly more confusing when the book is fantasy, or science fiction, or dystopian. Surely, you think, in a world full of werewolves who practice necromancy, realism is not of the utmost importance?

Well, it is and it isn’t.

I think often when people use the term “unrealistic” in this sense, what they really mean is “illogical” and of course, no matter what you’re reading a firm sense of logic needs to underpin the story. Or, if it’s magical realism, a shifting sense of logic that leaves the reader breathless and dazed, but not entirely confused. Sometimes, though, people really do mean, “unrealistic” and I think that’s indicative of the value we place on handling subject matter ‘realistically’.

I think this value is misplaced. There is no reason why we should have to adhere to the laws of reality while writing fiction. If, say, we set a story in London or San Francisco does our writing have to incorporate every single detail of those cities? Can we only work with what those cities have, or can we add our own elements? I would say no to the first question and yes to the second.

Only conventional realist wisdom keeps us bound to maintaining the ‘realism’ of the setting we choose – because none of the settings described in our stories are actually real. They’re a part of our storyworld. We’re using them to enhance something about our story. Sometimes, that can indeed be achieved through the sheer, realistic depiction of a place.

But, on occasion, we’re trying to do more than just sketch a place vividly. Sometimes, we resort to unrealistic language because we’re trying to personify a place. For instance in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things the months in Ayemenem are described as being “brooding” the “nights…are suffused with sloth and sullen expectation”.

Other times, we resort to unrealistic representations because we’re trying to stir up a certain emotion in the reader, by using a very particular aesthetic. It’s not my favourite technique, but the Romantic movement was famous for its use of pathetic fallacy – the mirroring of a character’s emotions in the weather. So yes, a story could be set in London during Winter, but if a character’s happy – you bet a ray of sunlight is dancing about there somewhere. Is this unrealistic? Yes. Is it bad? I don’t think so.

Fiction doesn’t aim to present the real, although some fiction does aim to present an alternate reality, in which the reader may puzzle through the problems that confound them in daily life. Fiction aims to generate emotion, to connect to something in you, through the sheer beauty (I use beauty to encompass a lot here – not just pretty language) of its aesthetic. And that goal is sometimes better served by breaking away from the purely realistic.

I’ve discussed the need to write unrealistically largely through the lens of setting, but I believe that writing unrealistically at times is crucial for the development of other elements of a successful novel, too. It’s all too easy to see why this is the case for plot – our lives don’t move in plot structures, they are not neatly tied up stories.

And while it’s somewhat more difficult to notice on the surface with characterization, it’s clear that some of the most engaging characters, some of the ones we relate to the most, are larger than life (think Chuck Bass, although I’ve only seen the TV show of Gossip Girl), or have traits that would be rare and ‘unrealistic’ given their context (think Elizabeth Bennett).

Writers adhering to reality isn’t what draws readers to fiction – in fact, it’s often our divergences from that reality that make storyworlds, both contemporary and fantasy, so enticing, our characters so engaging, and our plotlines so enthralling.


Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel FALL TO PIECES, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

What do you guys think about writing unrealistically?

8 Responses to “The Importance of Writing Unrealistically”

  1. Erin Bowman October 5, 2011 at 9:13 AM #

    I love the distinction you made between “unrealistic”and “illogical.” Does a book’s world have to perfectly mirroring the one we we know in order to be “realistic”? I, too, vote no. Think of how many great books we’d have missed if this were the case! (Harry Potter!)

    But illogical — I think you’re right to say that this is were readers often have issues; where the underlying logic of a story fails. If in world-building certain rules or assumptions are established, and later broken, THESE are the “unrealistic” pieces of a novel.

    In HP, if expelliarmus suddenly opened doors and alohomora disarmed opponents, by all means, we should shout “THIS MAKES NO SENSE!” The author had told us otherwise. But Rowling’s spells had consistency over all 7 books. And are her books “realistic?” Definitely not: Post delivered by owls, the Floo Network, dragons and hippogriffs. We know these things aren’t “real,” but they are weaved it into the story so authentically — and with established rules — that we are able suspend disbelief and get lost in the tale.

    Sorry for writing a short novel via comments. Just loved this topic! 🙂

  2. Joshua October 5, 2011 at 9:28 AM #

    Interesting post, Vahini. I’m not sure I quite agree, though I’m not sure I disagree either (could be my interpretation of that realism/logic razor). Using dystopians as an example (since that’s what I kind of write), I believe the finest out there have a construct based in reality and operate within that reality. Some events that happen within that construct might be far-fetched (e.g., Katniss Everdeen shooting down an airplane with a bow and arrow), but on the whole, the characters/setting/etc. must conglomerate into something plausible for greatest effect. A lot of dystopians I’ve read have constructs that are fun reads, but they lose the connection to humanity for me because the world or characters (usually the ancillary ones or antagonists) drift too far from the norm.

    For other subgenres, this might not be such a big deal, and I realize making a point through hyperbole can have a more powerful instantaneous effect, but, for me, it’s just a sugar high that doesn’t last very long.

    Then again, my book’s got dragons in it 🙂

  3. Asia Morela October 5, 2011 at 9:29 AM #

    Thank you for this blog! It’s like a complement to the last entry I wrote on my blog (realism vs idealism in modern romance), in which I also advocate lack of realism to achieve certain purposes that are worth it.

    Moreover, I would like to add that “realism” means adhering to reality, but what is reality? We all have a different understanding, a different interpretation of it. Whatever we write reflects our own view, and by definition it will not necessarily agree with someone else’s take on the same reality.

    That is why I disliked Twilight, by the way. Not because of the paranormal aspect, or how vampires were portrayed (that was fine IMO), but because of the way *love* and romantic relationships were portrayed. Love exists in the real world, so I obviously have my own opinion on it, therefore any book that goes so frontally against my beliefs will most likely not touch me… I could accuse Twilight of being unrealistic in its depiction of romantic love, but in the end what it doesn’t match is only *my* perception of reality. Meyer evidently has a different one.

  4. Rowenna October 5, 2011 at 9:49 AM #

    So true! A world needn’t be realistic in the “the way things really work” sense of the word to be logical. For me, it’s about suspension of disbelief. A good writer can weave a completely unrealistic world that I never question, because it’s internally consistent and the writer presents it as real–no intrusion from the author, no distance. And you’re right as well–fiction isn’t supposed to be “real.” It’s art. Art is manipulation of what isn’t real to look like it could be 🙂

  5. Cheyenne Hill October 5, 2011 at 11:54 AM #

    Great post! I agree that there is a major difference between unrealistic and illogical. Fiction has to have what Tolkien called an “inner consistency of reality” and therefore be logical within its own construct – not within *our* world, but the fictional world. Anyone discounting a novel because it’s not “realistic” is most likely misusing the word, or else they need to go read some non-fiction 😉

    Rowenna said it best – it is art, and just like a painting, we don’t look at it to see an absolute copy of what’s real. We want to see the artist’s rendering of it, how it looked to them. Albeit, there are some catches to this. If I’m reading a description of London that is blatantly wrong (in a modern day fiction), like having Londoners all constantly say, “I’m going to take the London Underground” when they’re seriously only going to call it the Tube in real life, it will pull me out of the story. But if a story is based in London inside a completely fictional shop in the middle of Oxford Street between two shops that I know are actually right next to each other, it’s not a big deal. Because in reality, that could happen. Things like that are too nit-picky to get caught up in I think, and besides, that’s what our imaginations are for. 🙂

    Totally agree that characters need to be larger-than-life too, because why else would we be reading it?

  6. Aimee Green (@aimeegreen) October 5, 2011 at 5:03 PM #

    This was an interesting topic. I was thinking about a part of this lately. I plan to set my project for this year’s NaNo in a real city, which got me thinking: How much of the real city should I keep, and how much should I make up? On the one hand, using an existing location (restaurant, shop, etc.) lends to the credibility of the story, but on the other hand, I think I would fall on the side of using a made-up place inside a real location — I would be too afraid of getting a real place wrong, or maybe even offending somebody connected to that real place. (The exception being, of course, public landmarks and the like. Those are fair game, I think.) It also feels a bit to me like a form of name-dropping if the characters visit real places that aren’t well-known. Seems like using my own locations inside the real place would be more “creative.”

    Then again, my NaNo is post-apocalyptic sci-fi, so it probably doesn’t matter *what* I do to the real city. 🙂

  7. Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2011 at 6:44 AM #

    I once had an acting teacher say something to the effect of, “Sit as if you were sitting on a couch, but not YOUR couch.” In other words, your own couch is probably boring. Be realistic, yet heightened. 🙂 Thanks for this great post, Vee!

  8. Caitlin October 6, 2011 at 2:26 PM #

    I agree completely! Things have to make sense within their own context, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything has to be 100% ‘accurate’ all the time. Illogical vs. unrealistic is a great way to put it, especially in terms of fantasy or sci fi. As long as books with fantasy/sci fi elements follow the rules that they have put into place, it doesn’t matter how unrealistic the story actually is!

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