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?