What is the point of realism in fantasy?

The posts at  The Book Lantern, especially this one have inspired me to start thinking about realism in fantasy. The question I asked myself: What’s the point of bothering to put realistic characters and relationships into a story? Especially if the story is already full of vampires, werewolves and fairies?

I came up with two answers, one simple, and one complex. And I came up with more questions. Of course.

The simple answer: realistic details helps maintain suspension of disbelief about the unreal elements. This is an old stand-by and used to be considered absolutely true: readers only have room for so many crazy ideas in their experiences. Put in one too many unrealistic elements and the reader disengages from the story. They switch from living the story to consciously reading and evaluating it. This is called breaking the willing suspension of disbelief, and tiny details can do it.


I think format and structure can modify that suspension of disbelief.  Readers can be trained to no longer consciously process structural elements they see constantly: for example, “He said,” is almost invisible as a speech tag these days.  I think that can also happen with content. If you’re used to reading books about vampires, you no longer need to allocate suspension of disbelief for them.

An author who relies on this firmly places a novel right in the center of its assigned genre, with little ability to reach readers who have not bought into genre conventions. That author sacrifices broad appeal for the ability to cheerfully throw common sense to the wind. That does sound like fun some days…

So, that’s the simple answer. A bit of realism prevents readers from going, “Pfft, yeah, right,” at the less realistic stuff in your book. It can pay off to do a bit of research about what you’re writing about, especially if it it’s set in the real world.

The complex answer requires a bit more of a break down of what fantasy is.

For some people, fantasy is escapism, pure and simple. The more it differs from their own lives, the better.  Magic and fairytales provide the sparkle they wish they found in their own lives. Vampires and werewolves provide a thrill of excitement. But that taste of excitement and magic is often just that– a taste, something intangible that melts away as soon as the cover is closed.

However, the promise of escapism is the make-up fantasy puts on in order to achieve its real purpose. We make up fantasies to help us understand things we can’t talk about clearly, starting with monsters under the bed when we’re very young.  And as we get older, the underlying purpose of fantasy continues as a way to talk about the human condition and human experience in ways that bypass the brain to go straight to the heart.

With fantasy, an author can talk about the issues, big and small, that have always haunted humanity. They can talk about ideas that are new and old at the same time. They can magnify the feelings everybody experiences and project them onto the world, then explore the consequences of those feelings, all while avoiding language that makes some people close off. They can do all this while incorporating the whole shebang into an action scene, to boot! Fantasy is like the third person point of view on many issues, necessarily a step removed and more gripping because of that distance to some readers.

Not all fantasy strives to do this. But the best does. Terry Pratchett regularly talks about racism, gender identity and what it means to be a person in his Discworld series. Melissa Marr elegantly broke down the true nature of addiction in Ink Exchange. And the metaphors in Harry Potter have been discussed extensively all over the literaverse. All of these books rely on traditional elements of the supernatural to shape and flavor the plots.  But the true stories are contained within the characters themselves. The realism of the characters and their relationships adds to the broad appeal of the stories.

Basically, keeping what realism you can sharpens the arrow that sends that story directly to the heart.  Fantasy is, ultimately, about real life. It’s about the reader, just as much as any literary or non-genre novel is.

I imagine a lot of people would disagree with me. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of readers who don’t want anything overtly Serious Business in their entertainment. Heck, I’m one of them. A story about actual sexual assault and realistically coping with it does not appeal to me. But a story about exploring the consequences behind the ability to rifle through somebody’s memories and thoughts at will? I’m there! They’ve got to have reactions I find realistic, though.

Then again, I do prefer the third person point of view in books I read…

I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts on the subject, especially given the recent popularity of books with shallow plots and shallow characters. Are they just perfect mid-genre escapism?

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