How Realistic Should A Story Be?

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On Facebook, indie thriller group Brass Catchers asked the following question:

What may strike me as an offensive oversight of a key feature or fact may not even register on another reader’s radar. So >how much do we authors need to worry about getting every aspect right? Are we actually limiting ourselves by fixating >on minutiae? Is the typical reader willing to forgive such mistakes in the name of verisimilitude and an otherwise >engaging storyline?

These are interesting questions without clear-cut answers. Different readers (and, by extension, media consumers) have different expectations. On one end of the spectrum, you have readers who just don’t care about facts so long as the story is enjoyable. On the other, these readers are extremely demanding and will not forgive the slightest deviation from reality. You can’t possibly write to meet everybody’s expectations.

If a writer prefers to make up Cool Awesome Stuff instead of doing the research, he’s going to appeal to the first crowd, and annoy the second. The novel Brass Catchers uses in their post exemplifies this. If a writer decides instead to produce a work of painstaking accuracy and show his work, the latter might appreciate it, but all that effort will be lost on the former — if not bore them altogether. Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels delve in-depth into sniping, firearms and ammunition, but most of the jargon will be lost on people who do not come from that world.

What writers can do is to write up to the expectations of their intended audience and the conventions of their chosen genre. The market is huge enough that you don’t have to appeal to everyone – you just have to hook the kind of readers you are writing for. But this does mean you need to know who you are writing for.

Thrillers are notorious for requiring painstaking accuracy to establish verisimilitude. A significant number of thriller readers are police officers and soldiers, former or current. For these people, thrillers reflect aspects of lived experience. They know how firearms work, they know tactics, they know the tools of the trade. They know that the slightest mistake will leave people maimed or dead. They have been trained to accept nothing less than one hundred percent factual accuracy, for their lives depend on knowing how to use a tourniquet, how to clear a room, how to adjust for wind drift over distance, and other such arcana. This mindset transfers into everything they do, including how they read stories. They know that people who use tools, tactics, techniques and procedures incorrectly will die — and they don’t care if these ‘people’ happen to be fictitious characters who exist only inside a story. If writers won’t take the effort to ensure their characters will survive, or if the readers sense that these writers are artificially manipulating the environment or enemies to ensure that their characters survive their mistakes, these readers will believe that the writers either don’t care enough to do the research or not skilled enough to write convincing thrillers. Writers who want to write stories set in such unforgiving milieus must steel themselves to be as conscientious and accurate as their intended audience.

The same expectations apply to historical fiction. People who enjoy historical fiction are likely themselves students of history. They would have immersed themselves in the culture of their favourite time periods, investing time and money into learning everything there is to know about those eras. It may not be lived experience — save for historical reenactors — but these readers will be aware of established facts. Fiction that contravenes these facts through accident or negligence will not resonate with such readers, because the writers have shown that they do not embody the same dedication to historical accuracy as the readers.

While thrillers and historical fiction demand painstaking attention to detail and vast amounts of research, other genres tend to be more forgiving. Romance readers, for example, focus primarily on the romance, while horror readers want to be horrified. Specialist knowledge, such as how firearms work or the proper way to address a high-status lady are not usually important to such stories outside of equally specialist subgenres. These readers would be more likely to forgive such mistakes like taking the safety off a Glock or having a character wear a Colt Single Action Army in a story set in 1870, so long as the rest of the story feels authentic.

Different kinds of readers will have different interests, leading them to focus on different things. Thriller readers pay close attention to tradecraft while romance readers do the same for relationships. Readers are likely to forgive mistakes and fabrications outside their area of interest, but not those within their area of interest.

So what about stories that are not set in the real world?

The Art of Making Up Facts

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Science fiction and fantasy stories are differentiated from other genres by the presence of elements that clearly do not (and may never) exist in the real world, such as ultra-high-technology in the case of sci fi and magic in the case of fantasy. For such genres, writers have to walk the fine line between exercising the imagination and maintaining verisimilitude.

Once again, I think this depends on genre expectations. Or, more precisely, how you want to define your story.

Hard science fiction is defined by adherence to known science. Readers of such fiction may well be scientists themselves. Between genre conventions and reader expectations, writers who want to market their stories as hard sci fi must therefore strive to be as accurate as possible. Indeed, part of the magic of hard science fiction is to how creators can exploit known science to create interesting stories, leading to media like Planetes, Children of a Dead Earth or Corsair.

And yet even hard sci fi is less demanding than thrillers. Readers want the feel of high technology and realism but not necessarily slavish devotion to reality. Even for works lauded as hard sci fi, such as The Expanse or Starship Operators, creators have gotten away with softer science or just making stuff up. For instance, a critical plot sequence in Nemesis Games of the The Expanse series involves terrorists somehow launching swarms of kinetic kill vehicles without anyone noticing, while an episode of Starship Operators involves a showdown with a stealth warship. However, these counterfactual elements will require vast knowledge of niche subjects to detect; for everyday readers and consumers, such subjects do not fall into the category of lived experience of personal research, so they are far more willing to gloss over them — if they are, indeed, aware of such aspects to begin with.

This is not to say that writers shouldn’t do the research, rather that there is simply a bit more wiggle room for stories not set in the present day.

Outside of hard sci fi, factual accuracy matters far less than internal consistency when pertaining to these made-up elements. Readers already know that you are making stuff up, be they nanomachines or fireballs, warp drives or divine arts. They just want these imaginary elements to stay true to the rules established in-story — and for characters and societies to treat these imaginary elements as aspects of their lived experience. So, if magic in a story runs on stored mana and there are people with higher mana than most, than it would naturally lead to the rise of magic users who are defined by their higher-than-average mana and specialisation in magic, and this in turn would organically lead to the rise of magical schools to pass on knowledge and societies to govern the behaviour of such magic users.

However, this rule only applies to imaginary elements. Everything else should still accord with lived experience and known history as far as practical. Thus, you cannot state that Singapore is a part of China, or that a baseline human has four lungs. If a story does require such aspects, then the writer must justify them, placing them firmly in the category of ‘imaginary elements’. Failure to do so makes these elements look like outright mistakes or just plain carelessness, turning off readers who care about such things.

Between Fact and Fiction

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Writers are like alchemists, balancing fact and fiction to create stories that will resonate with their intended audience. Stories with a strong grounding in fact resonate with readers, allowing you to carry them off into your story world. At the very least, stories must accurately depict the quintessence of the genre they fall into: thrillers must reflect tradecraft, romance must reflect relationships, hard science fiction must reflect science. Stories that fail to meet genre conventions and reader expectations will not resonate with the intended audience, and will not be respected.

I think a reasonable standard of realism that will please everyone but the most hardened pro-realism or pro-imagination zealots is to ensure that key story elements should not contradict the targeted readers’ lived experience and known historical facts without justification. Such justification can be as complex as creating entirely new branches of science, or as simple as signalling to the reader that the story is alternate history / science fiction / fantasy or some other genre, depending on the needs of the story and the tastes of the audience. Beyond that, writers are free to exercise their imagination to the fullest.

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