by Quentin Long
©2007 Quentin Long
Ive said it before, but it bears repeating: Nobody really wants to read realistic fiction.
That may strike you as a presumptuous (if not downright arrogant) statement. But if you think a bit, youll see that it is true, pretty much by definition. After all, we say a thing is realistic when its in more-or-less strict conformance with Reality, and what can possibly be less in-conformance-with-Reality than a made-up story? Show me a person who really does prefer his reading material to be 100%, USDA Choice realistic, and Ill show you someone whose need for drama can be fully satisfied by the front page of his local newspaper!
Why, then, do so many readers say they like to read realistic fiction?
Whats going on here? Are all those people lying, or what? Perhapsbut for my money, the true explanation for this puzzle falls into the or what category. Specifically, I think that what people really want to see in their fiction is internal consistencythey want to believe that the whole fictional construct hangs together nicely, and that there arent any glaring contradictions in the story-world.
Okay, but then how come everybody makes noise about realism, and consistency is basically an afterthought, when it gets mentioned at all? Thats easy: The real worldthe physical universe that you and I inhabit, read books in, and go to work inis internally consistent, end of discussion. There are no glitches in Reality; just an occasional piece of Reality that we didnt understand as well as we thought we did. And more often than not, we do understand whatever-it-was after we study it a while. Thus, anything thats realistic is automatically internally consistent. And that, in turn, is how come people talk about the former when they mean the latter.
Interestingly, the internal consistency deal is why writing isnt as easy as it looks. Sure, as an author you can make up any-damn-thing you feel like for your story but the instant you make it up, youre stuck with it. Once youve decided that Character X is a female Lithuanian bartender, you cant just turn around and use your auctorial fiat to declare that Character X is a male bookie from the South Bronx. Once youve established that Sir Fred is lethally competent with his misericorde, your readers will be annoyed if Sir Freds misericorde skill mysteriously deserts him one fine paragraph. And so on, and so forth.
Its like a certain hard-luck superhero says: With great power comes great responsibility. Power doesnt come any greater than ex nihilo creation at will (which is basically what any author has, with respect to the story theyre writing) but its not necessarily as much fun as you might think, because that power comes as part of a package deal, and its bundled with the responsibility to Keep Track Of Exactly What You Created. Because if you dont keep track of what you created, you're liable to accidentally contradict yourselfand whether accidental or deliberate, all contradictions are harmful to the readers Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
Another reason why realism is, in fact, not what people want in their fictional reading material: Reality doesn't have to make sense. In the Real World, thousands of people every year are killed by drunk drivers, pretty much at random; if stories really were in conformance with Reality, a certain number of protagonists would logically have to get slaughtered by drunk drivers in the first chapter, if not the first page or paragraph. But, of course, that doesnt happenand nobody complains about how unrealistic that is. The take-home lesson is this: The needs of the story can and do take precedence over any purported need for Realism. And any author forgets this, or disregards it, at peril of losing their audience.