Get Real

In literature, realism has a technical meaning. Or two. Or maybe three. In a general sense, it refers to representing characters as they really are, or would be if they weren’t fictional. It means writing about people without glamorizing them, without glossing over their failings, presenting everything–even the most banal aspects of their lives–exactly as it would be.

Realism renders characters, well, real. That’s good. We relate better to real characters than to stereotypes or caricatures. Even superheros have to be real in a certain sense: they must have weaknesses. Even “truth, justice, and the American way” characters sometimes struggle with the impulse to lie or the desire for revenge rather than justice.

But like anything else, realism can be carried too far. Do you want to watch every character go through every trivial moment of their day? Of course not. You don’t care what they had for breakfast Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… You might care if Joe had an argument with his wife during breakfast. Or if he received a shocking text message while munching on his toast, choked, and ended up at the hospital. But if nothing happened except he ingested some crispy bread? Nah.

Even the details of most people’s jobs make for bland reading. I write computer software. You might think that would be interesting. To me, it generally is. But if I led you step by step through a typical day on my job, you’d be yawning before the first half hour was up. Some fiction–such as the mysteries I write–does follow people through their work days, but not in excruciating detail. I may show a detective doing their paperwork, but only as background to something more interesting. Nobody wants to watch somebody fill out forms. Moreover, not being a detective myself, I’m sure I don’t get everything right. Probably some of what happens in my novels would not happen in real life. How important is that? It depends. If you’re a detective or know more about detective work than I do, you might gripe. But to be honest, so long as I don’t make any gross errors, it’s not all that important. I’m telling a story, not documenting a day in the life of a cop. If you’re pulled into the story, then it works, unreality and all. Don’t believe me? Consider how much unreality works its way into novels and TV shows and movies. Real crime scene investigators sometimes wish they had all the gadgets their TV counterparts do. Quite honestly, unreality can keep us on the edges of our seats more effectively than reality.

So there is a balance to be struck: stories should be real enough to be convincing, but not excruciatingly real. Fiction is, after all, fiction, not reality. I sometimes compare writing to another art I practice, bonsai. In bonsai, one trains the growth of a small tree grown in a pot in such a way that it gives the illusion of being a full-grown tree. But many of the principles bonsai artists follow are entirely artificial. Branches should not cross, for example. In nature, branches will grow any way they can to get to the light, but in a bonsai the branches must be carefully pruned and shaped. It’s not a natural tree. It’s a contrived tree that gives the illusion of being natural, which the best bonsai actually do. Same with stories. They aren’t reality, but when well written, they can give the illusion of being real.

In the process, a lot of reality is necessarily left out.

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