Friday, April 12, 2013

Do We Expect Too Much Realism in Our Stories?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I've been noticing an interesting reaction to stories lately. The expectation to be realistic, even when the books are clearly not real. People complaining about something not being able to happen in real life in stories that in no way are trying to be real life.

I'm not talking about the basic plausibility every story needs, but a desire for realism that makes it difficult to suspend disbelief, and thus hurts the enjoyment of the story overall.

I first noticed it in a review of the YA dystopian novel, Divergent. (a great book by the way) The reviewer had issues with the general setup of the class factions of the novel's world. They said you'd never have this happen in real life.

My first reaction was that this faction breakdown was a metaphor for the cliques every teen experiences. It wasn't supposed to be real life. (though in later books in the series it turns out there is a legitimate reason for it, but I think my point is still valid) It's a fantasy novel posing a question: if life was like this, what would happen under these circumstances?

Part of the enjoyment of a book is explore human nature within the confines of a premise. It's like an experiment--pose that what if scenario and then test it. See how things shake out, what people do, how one moment interacts with the next.

If we expect everything to be real, is it hurting our ability to explore the what if?

Worse, is it hurting us as writers?

Is the pressure to be real holding us back from exploring ideas just because "it would never happen that way?"

I suppose it's possible that fantasy (in all its shapes and sizes) has gone more mainstream now, so readers who have never read it before are picking it up. If you've never been exposed to the what if type story, you might have issues with the format. But it does make me wonder why, with the growing popularity of fantasy, believability seems to be going down.

What do you guys think? Have you noticed this as well, or am I just crazy?


  1. I'm with you, Janice. Any time I start reading a new series, I assume it's a reality different enough from our own that anything the author wants can happen, so long as it two things are kept in mind: Internal consistency and verisimilitude.

    If the writer establishes that magic can't bring someone back from the dead, a character can't then be resurrected without some serious revelations, challenges, and a hefty price to be paid. Because otherwise the reader has been sold one idea, one fact, and then had that changed. Their expectations have been broken and the writer has evoked false tension by misleading the reader.

    Similarly, if magic can bring people back from the dead, you can't have the king killed falling from his horse, because even if such magic is costly, surely the price would be paid for a king? Likewise you need to address how such power affects society. There's bound to be major class issues if only the wealthy or "divinely chosen" may be brought back to life.

  2. Readers in general expect more realism these days. For example, I know this one reader who says that the economy in THE HUNGER GAMES helped ruin the book for her because it was very unrealistic. Thinking about it, having only one major industry per district is like putting all your eggs in one basket, and it sort of hurts the Capitol's credibility...but it's a minor element.

  3. Janice said: I suppose it's possible that fantasy (in all its shapes and sizes) has gone more mainstream now, so readers who have never read it before are picking it up.

    I think that's it.

    I know some people who dislike and never or rarely read or watch speculative fiction. When they do, they like it for some other aspect in the story—and they're puzzled by the reasons for things that I find obvious.

  4. Paul, exactly. Rules of magic are topic all on their own, but they're a good example of where the line is.

    Chihuahua Zero, totally. Great example of what I'm talking about. The book wasn't about the economy of the land, but the games themselves and the oppression it represented. And it's really not that outside reality. We have manufacturing centers in the US. Cars come from Detroit, food from the Midwest, tech from California, etc. The Districts were just an extrapolation of that to emphasize a point.

    Carradee, I can see that. I have non-fantasy friends who had trouble with common elements f the genre when they started beta reading my stuff. They'd want explanations on things you'd never explain.

  5. It's an interesting question and one I've not really hit as I'm always more than willing to 'go there' with the author! :) e

  6. I find that when I read a story and don't like it because it doesn't 'feel real,' it's not because the world of the novel doesn't feel plausible. It's because for whatever reason I haven't been able to suspend my disbelief enough to accept the given world at face value.

  7. Elizabeth, me too, though I have noticed some things I'm fine with, others I balk at. It happens more in movies than books though. Like I can accept trying to fly a tank in The A-Team (cause it was just funny) but I totally didn't buy an admiral giving up codes in Olympus Has Fallen. Maybe cause one was trying to be over the top and one was trying to be serious and realistic?

    Natalie, those are things I think a writer can certainly fix--and should look at as they develop the book. Give the reader something to work with, hehe.

  8. I’m going to have to go against this post, Janice. Divergent is not a fantasy but a dystopia. In this genre, plausibility of world building is critical to suspend belief. Dystopia is the downfall of societies. I feel, as a writer, authors who fail to set up a realistic world are too lazy to bother with credibility and are missing the point of the genre altogether. It would be different if Divergent is classified as simply an action novel, but it is not. Therefore, I cannot excuse its plot holes. Divergent (however entertaining it may be) is filled with lazy writing. Writers who attempt dystopia should study sociology. Think of it this way: would you want to read a, say, mystery novel that ignores its genre’s standards?

  9. @Erica Martin: That's what I'm thinking over. Should the dystopian genre be held to high standards?

    On the surface, it doesn't seem necessary. Really, it depends on the audience. Some just want an entertaining story in an interesting setting. Some want a realistic, themical "what-if" of the future. Some want both.

  10. Erica, disagree away, it's a discussion and opposite views are great :) I agree that worlds should be set up credibly, but a dystopia is all about the what if. Very few dystopias are believable if you push them (How realistic is Logan's Run, for example). They're about societies that are broken, not necessarily the downfall of. (that's more apocalyptic I think)

    This is also a novel aimed at teens. Is it fair to expect hard social/economical science in what is essential a made up world created to explore a social idea for younger readers? Though the expectations between teen vs adult lit might be a whole other topic.

    Plot holes are different to me than credibility, and I expect plots to be filled as best they can. But the idea of "this is a world with factions and here's how it works" is the premise readers are asked to accept. Would it hurt the story (or the genre as a whole) if authors had to explain how that society came to be in a way that would satisfy those not so willing to buy in? Characters aren't always away of how their worlds came to be, and explaining that can easily turn into huge infodumps.

    With your mystery example, is asking readers to accept a premise the same as ignoring genre standards? Divergent offered a broken society with a set of rules the characters had to fight against. That fully fits within the genre of dystopian fiction.

    I guess to narrow it down more, do we expect our fantasy (broad term) premises to be so realistic that it hurts the novel's ability to tell a story?

  11. I agree that readers expect more (or perhaps just a different kind of) realism today than in the past.

    On the other hand, part of that comes from a desire to read books with rich and extensive world building. Tolkien's Middle Earth is clearly fantasy, yet it is constructed with so much thought and detail that the reader never stops and says, "Hey, this doesn't seem realistic..." I think it is important to make sure that the construction of a story allows the reader to "believe" everything that happens in a story, within the world of THAT story. The Hunger Games (referenced in a comment above) simply doesn't have complete world building. That's a legitimate choice of the author, especially for a teen novel, but I think the book would have a longer-lasting and deeper impact if the author HAD chosen to build a complete world. She could have explored her themes in greater depth.

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  13. Typos before-

    You know I face this issue ALL THE TIME with what I write.

    I wish more people would get that just because writers don't set their stories doesn't mean we didn't do some level of research, even we choose to forego certain facts to serve our story better.

    That's why a lot of us writers avoid journalism and nonfiction, which has to be true and still engage, it's great when it works, but sometimes fiction's the only way to express what you want without being bound to the truth needed for journalism and other areas of nonfiction.

    That's part of why fiction exists. It doesn't take away from those who can make the factual fascinating.

    There are so many great books OUTSIDE the fantasy realm that we'd be deprived of if fiction didn't allow for "What if..."

    Micheal Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" asked the questions-

    "If displaced Jews from the Holocaust had been granted sanction to colonize Alaska, how might it play out?"

    "How would it change the Jewish culture and it's history?"

    "What would happen when that sanction which only lasted 20 years ended?"

    Even though these events did not happen in real life, the possibility of it happening was based on historical fact.

    Sometimes I think current events also contributes to some readers inability to work their imaginations.

    Nonfiction has it's place, but so does fiction, and just because there's not a pragmatic breakdown of every
    thing we write in a novel or story,

    We don't give poetry these parameters, and they're not always based in logic, does that make them less worthy reads? Not to me.

    Hope I'm making some sense, Janice, I do get touchy about these issues.

  14. "Nonfiction has it's place, but so does fiction, and just because there's not a pragmatic breakdown of every
    thing we write in a novel or story, doesn't mean it doesn't belong in the story."

  15. Amen, sister! Could not agree more!

  16. Anna, I never had an issue with the world building in Divergent or The Hunger Games, but I cut YA some slack on that. The things adults want to know about the world are often different from teen readers. But it does make me wonder how we should deal with that as authors. I read that 65% of all YA is bought by adults. If more adults are reading it than teens, should we push YA to higher standards to satisfy those adult readers? (that might be next week's post, lol. I have some New Adult thoughts that play into that as well)

    Taurean, all fiction needs to come from a place of credibility, but I'm curious where that line is for today's reader. Is the availability of so much news and information making readers want more substance in the realism of fantasy worlds? Is it realistic to expect a fantasy book--especially one aimed at kids--to pass a level of world building that would hold up to a sociology professor?

  17. I write and read historical, and I'm okay with some bending of established facts and reality, so long as they stay within the realm of plausibility and are carefully explained instead of just thrown out there like a normal, common occurrence. For example, an escape from a death camp or Stalinist Russia wouldn't have been common, but it did happen. It makes for a more dramatic, interesting, original story if you have an event that didn't happen every day, as long as it's not depicted in a really unrealistic way.

  18. Janice, I'm not saying novelists aren't bound to credibility at all.

    Do you think I'd have endured all the mixed feedback I got about how realistic my animal characters should be long enough to finally sell my first book if I didn't give a d*** about m

    Fiction does need some basis in facts.

    But it's just NOT at the same level or ways as nonfiction. Period.

    To be continued...

  19. Correction to above-

    "Do you think I'd have endured all the mixed feedback I got about how realistic my animal characters should be long enough to finally sell my first book if I didn't give a d*** about making sure I gave my stories some level of fact and realism so people could more easily suspend disbelief?"

    Okay, onward-

  20. Think of it another way-

    A lot of books featuring mentally ill characters use the "Isane beyond redemption" jerks.

    Because aside from giving the writer a license to be as wicked and twisted as they want, or that specific story requires, I know readers can find a thrill of reading what they'd rather not live, hence all the novels about war, dystopian apocalypse, and sensationalized accounts of adultery, whether fiction or nonfiction.

    I'm no less guilty here.

    Still, as consequence, those of us readers who actually do have (Albeit to a FAR lesser degree) these kinds serious issues in real life often get frustrated with how people with our problems are so often portrayed, especially in fiction.

    THe biggest reason so many people don't want to admit they have mental problems is because the stigma

    All the worse case scenarios make lesser afflicted folks feel alone in their pain, especially if their family doesn't believe mental illness is real.

    I really believe, at least in some parts of the world, mental illness has a far worse stigma than AIDS and all forms of CANCER combined.

    I'm not saying don't hold people accountable for doing wrong, but we don't have to criminalize mental illness in general to do that!

    Newsflash, not all of us mentally challenged people are EVIL!

    We're all NOT Hannibal Lector!

    We're NOT all Joker!

    We're NOT all Monsters who are any less HUMAN than anyone else!

    We're NOT all psycho pervs bent on causing misery to all who meet our gaze!

    I'm autistic, I've got other mental and social shortcomings, that doesn't mean I'm incapable of having or wanting the same things people less mentally and socially challenged do.

    I'm not perfect, no one is, but I least am not the extremes cited above.

    I'm not arguing against using facts to inform your fiction.

    What I'm trying so hard to say is that most writers turn to fiction because it allows our imagination to be let loose, and please get I'm not saying nonfiction can't do that.

    I also think my annoyance of stereotyping in general plays a part in why some things are funny to others but distasteful or just outright CRUEL to me.

    I still think in a time when education and economics are dominating most people's thinking, whether young or old, in whatever degree of severity, it's collectively I feel or fear all most people care about these days.

    More than ever, we hold "fun" in contempt, and glorify education and money as the ONLY societal necessities. I'm not saying they're not important, but they should be all we care about or live for.

    AS much as none of us want to be in poverty for life, do we want to only know what it means to work hard and never have fun? As much as we don't want our kids to be slackers stuck at home, do you want to see all their sense of joy and play sucked out of them in order to "Grow Up?"

    I'm not a parent or teacher, but from my experience, my life would've been an outright soap opera on all fronts (Minus the cheesy elevator music) directed by Tarantino (Master of Masochistic Films from what I hear) if I'd been conditioned to believing education was God, for lack of another G-rated way to say it.

    I know for many people, education opened doors, and I truly don't mean to imply otherwise, but they can close doors, too.

    As much as we envy the academic achievements and work ethic of asian cultures, they're also first to admit to having a severe lack of imaginative thinkers and creative talent.

    Some of the most successful people in the world in nearly any field one can think of had their share self-made men and women who while not having a Phd or having great personal wealth, whether earned or inherited, still lived productive and passionate lives overall.

    Sorry for being a bit jerky, Janice, but I thought you would get what I was saying.

  21. Taurean, I get what you're saying, but I think you're reading way more into this than I intended. Using stereotypes and cliches instead of developing real characters is just bad writing or worse. That's not AT ALL what I'm talking about.

    I'm also not talking about the standard "you should make your stories credible" aspect. That's a given, we all should. I'm looking a step further into what happens when an author follows the rules and presents a credible world, and because by its nature it's something that can't actually happen, it gets slammed for not being real enough.

    Let's look at your genre--animal fiction. By its nature it's not real. You don't have animals talking and building societies in anthropomorphic ways. Is it realistic for a reader to criticize you for a lack of realism in your work because you chose to present a "animals can talk and have societies like humans do" premise? That you should spend time and words to explain how your world works and why it's like that to satisfy academics in that field.

    A certain level of plausibility to make the story work--yes, that's acceptable. But expecting a level of realism that's probably unrealistic? It seems to me that's going too far. That's the kind of realism I mean.

    1. Now that I've cooled out from initially replying, I just wanted to again say I'm sorry for blowing my top, Janice.

      I certainly wasn't mad at you, I just have a habit of getting too hot and bothered about things . I still stand by what I said, just didn't mean to sound rude about it (LOL!)

      But I did want to make one last point. One of the things I'm going to blog about this year is the varying degrees of naturalism in nonhuman characters. I think that would be helpful for other writers of animal fantasy, and I think those varying degrees as especially important for writers to keep in mind if your animal story goes against the typical stories about pets or clan-based warfare, because that's what many people think the genre's limited to, but you can have so much more diversity in this genre BEYOND "Tom and Jerry" style antics or creature versus creature warfare, just like NOT all vampire stories are in the vein of (Old School) Dracula or Twilight, and that's all I meant to express overall in regard to this topic.

      Many stories choose the less naturalist route and that's fine.

      I try to use as much of their naturalistic traits that I can and that varies from story to story. When it's animal-only world (Like Redwall for instance) I take many liberties, but I ALWAYS keeps as much of their natural traits that I can (What they eat, aggression, preferred climates, etc), but when humans are part of the world, it gets tricky, but it CAN be done.

      I get sensitive about this because I feel so torn sometimes between whether this is a credible issue or just preference disguised as a credibility issue.

      If nothing else I just want my style of storytelling to be respected in general.

      Just because I'm not into erotica doesn't mean I belittle those who read and write it. I just want the same respect for what I do even if it's not your thing.

      Just because I'm not 100% naturalistic with my animals doesn't mean I did ZERO research on them, but just like any historical novelist has to pick and choose what historical details are most relevant to the story they're telling, I have to weigh pros and cons of the research I do on what works for the story or that specific character or not.

      Anyway, this was a great post and I'm glad you reminded me of it via your Twitter feed since it reminded me I need to write about the varying degrees and approaches to animal fantasy because it's so important, not just for me personally, but other writers who are facing similar issues if their critique group doesn't "Get it."

      Sometimes the more tight your niche, the harder it is to find like-minded readers who get when something's a stylistic choice rather than an "ignorant inaccuracy" as that can look the case to out of genre readers, or readers who want a more grounded view of you nontraditional characters, whatever the genre. IMHO.

  22. I could always claim, “That would never happen.” Even if it was non-fiction… Even if it was happening to me, right now… You can always claim that.
    The definition of fiction is ‘invention or fabrication as opposed to fact’. As fiction authors we’re not claiming that something would happen. We are asking the reader to pretend and then offering something for their entertainment. Fiction shouldn’t be judged on weather or not it would occur. But on it’s entertainment value. Did it intrigue, inspire or captivate you?

  23. Great post, Janice! You said, "I have non-fantasy friends who had trouble with common elements f the genre when they started beta reading my stuff. They'd want explanations on things you'd never explain."

    Yes! I've run into this with my genre too. I want to do enough to make my stories accessible to the non-genre readers (as they might come to like that genre), but I don't want to be so pedantic with explanations as to bore the genre readers.

    I also agree with you that dystopian is all about the brokenness, not necessarily about how the society became broken. I've struggled with the label for my novella because some aspects of the society are dystopian (i.e., very broken), but some aspects of the society aren't--and they're more about the post-apocalyptic struggle to move forward. That line has made it hard to know how much and what type of background information to include in the story because of the different expectations of realism. The story itself has more of a romance/fairytale feel, so I've leaned toward less realism, but... *shrug* :)

  24. My attraction to reading fantasy, in particular, was the escape from so much reality. I dealt with THAT crap on a daily basis. So it was nice to step away on a cloud of suspended disbelief and enjoy talking animals, fantastic magic so much that wasn't and didn't have to be real.

    Perhaps there's an expectations issue from those not as familiar with genre fiction. There are just some things I don't expect from contemporary and and keep a wide open imagination for sci-fi and fantasy.

  25. I love a good unrealistic story - even in contemporary fiction. Without crazy, unbelievable events happening so close together to the same character - the book would most likely be boring. :)

    Of course, as long as the whole book is the same way and doesn't jump from completely realistic to over the top. :) I suspend my disbelieve pretty easily.

    When I don't, it's more about the actual skill of the writer than it is about the premise.

  26. I'm with Erica Martin here. Dystopia is a genre, a cautionary fable about what could happen in our society if we don't stop being stupid, or ignorant, or sports fans. Whatever. If you want to write dystopia, you have to do a modicum of sociological research to be able to construct a realistic forecast of a possible future. Otherwise, you're writing fantasy. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that, but you have to know which it is.

    Most dystopian novels aren't dystopian at all. They're fantasy, set in Denver. You can make this work, but you have to be very careful about how you do it.

    Well, actually, you really DON'T. You can construct a completely ridiculous society with zero economic sense, fill it with allegedly military fascists that know not one blessed thing about military strategy, and if you have a really cool main character that we care about, you, too, can sell a million copies and have blockbuster movies made from it.

    So I guess satisfying reality wonks like me actually doesn't make a lot of sense, since there's a steeply-diminishing return on the work necessary to create plausible dystopian futures. Who really cares about what money is, and why we have it? Just put your society underground after a nuclear disaster and have your plucky protagonists figure out clues to how to escape when the power starts to fail. Presto. You can even get Bill Murray to spruce up the movie, if you ask nicely.

    Rethinking it, I'd advise dystopian writers to do whatever they like, as long as we like the story. And ignore people like me, who carp about your financial systems but don't care that Captain Mal doesn't have to float around Serenity whenever he goes into the black.

  27. I don't think this is anything new, or limited to literature. I can't count the number of times I've watched a movie or something on TV, and a friend or acquaintance has said, "that's not real - the character couldn't do that" and the character is a ghost or superhero or even better, a cartoon.

  28. I don't disagree with Minuteman's statement: "Dystopia is a genre, a cautionary fable about what could happen in our society if we don't stop being stupid, or ignorant, or sports fans. Whatever."

    However, I think cautionary tales can come from allegories or from hard science fiction. Allegories might be less based in realism, but they still accomplish the goal of imparting a cautionary message beyond what fantasy in general often attempts to do.

    That lack of realism doesn't make allegories any less of a good story (or message) than those that utilize hard scifi. I'd hate to see a push for hard scifi elements erase that path for dystopians (or other related genres).

    And that brings us back to the point of the original post. Not every story has to be realistic to grab our attention and say something meaningful. Plausible enough to not kick us out of the "suspension of disbelief" state as we're reading? Yes. But realistic? No.

    Interesting conversation! :) Thanks, Janice!

  29. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when reading book reviews. If I am reading a work of fiction, I don't expect it to be completely and totally realistic, and I honestly don't want my story bogged down with explanations of how the world came to be how it is in the story. Fiction is all about creativity and if you limit authors to only writing about realistic scenarios, that greatly limits creativity.

    It seems as though people have developed extremely high expectations when it comes to realism in works of fiction. They want the story to not only be somewhat plausible, but entirely possible and even likely to happen. These standards vary greatly from tv and movies. I have noticed lately how movies and tv shows can come up with any number of crazy, impossible scenarios and the audience rarely questions it. I think we need to relax a little and see these books for what they are: fiction.

  30. I know I blew my top, Janice, I just get sensitive about this stuff.

    Sorry I was out of step with what you meant.

    I agree with you about what you were saying in your blog post, though, I just got too enraged to express that better and less angsty.

    Jami, you said much of what I meant to say in my comments here, but my tangent didn't serve that purpose.

    Kristen, of course this isn't limited to books, movies and television are like that, too.

    But as Janice has said here on her blog some time ago, books are just held to a higher standard in terms of what's enough.

    You also shouldn't underestimate readers in general. More are open to genres outside their usual fare than you think, I can't back that up with graphs and databases, but I know that's true for lay readers I knew and certainly for me.

    Visual mediums at least have the advantage of seeing the story play out, and from more than one perspective, something that's not always possible in novels.

    That said, I don't you can make a blanket statement about realism vs. non-realism.

    Some of my best feedback came from people who don't get the particulars of my genre, yet they still gave me advice that helped, but I'd rather have beta-readers who get my genre to avoid a lot of the frustrating comments, but sometimes you have to take who you can get, the more tight you're niche.

    Even under the umbrella of Fantasy, there's lots of variants.

    While my fiction is in the same broad genre as HP or LOTR, the approach far different, and that can also cause confusion among writers we try to beta-read for and from.

  31. Oh, and Kristen, if I could draw and had millions of dollars to spend for my own animation team, I'd probably enjoy doing animation for the simple fact I don't have to defend my stories the way you often do when you're limited to words alone.

    Since I have neither, I struggle to fight through the discouraging comments and ignorant remarks.

  32. Janice, I honestly had the same issue about the setup of class factions in Divergent. Actually to be honest, while reading Divergent, I remember thinking that human beings, with so many types of personalities, characters, strengths/gifts, tendencies (sometimes we're brave, other days, not so much), instabilities and such (and we can change over time) cannot be readily classified into 5 virtues. That aspect of the novel interrupted my reading, I have to admit. It sort of made me go, "huh?" Does that mean an author can write a book about a world or society in which human beings were happy all the time? (Maybe this is a bad example.) What if…the world was filled with happy people, just always happy; no depression, no anger; no moodiness. And all the tests on the humans in the world, revealed that they were all really happy.Then the author sets up a story in this setting/world of happy people. The reader might think: that's impossible because it's not human nature, that's not real. Or the reader might just accept it as it is, after all, this is a fictional world. I think I would accept the fiction world of happy people better (i.e. my reading wouldn't be interrupted) if the story revealed the reason, like the happy parts of people's brains were amplified some way or the human genome got altered and mainly selected for happy genes. I want there to be a 'realistic reason' in the story, even if the 'realistic reason', isn't even possible or real in our real life world. (The reasons don't need to be infodump or a dissertation-level explanation.) It's just that, even in the imaginary fiction world, my brain needs to make sense of it, like how magic has to make sense (or follow the rules) in the fiction world. I think that's part of world-building. I think I'm probably babbling now - probably stating the obvious! That's my 2 cents. In the end, I enjoyed reading Divergent anyway, once I got over the "huh?" part. Great post, Janice!

  33. This comment thread definitely is forming into quite the discussion.

    For example, I'm having my own talk with a few other writers about Delirium over at the TV Tropes forums.

    Really, suspension of disbelief is quite the subject, because it's so subjective!

  34. Leanna, that's how I feel, though I do expect authors to give me at least a base level explanation. I've also found that what the "hard to believe" element is matters. If it's a great idea, plausible or not, I'll more likely buy it.

    Jami, oo rough place to be in with your story. That's probably made even harder by the popularity of dystopian fiction. Things that aren't necessarily dystopian are being labeled as such to cash in on the trend. (My UK publisher has Shifter as dystopian, and I don't thin it is at all except by the most general definition of broken society) I think a true dystopian novel has to have those sociological elements and arguments. It's more than just setting. The broken society needs to be making some kind of a point about the real world.

    Angela, I think that plays a big role. I know I'll buy things from fantasy that I wouldn't from contemporary. The more real a story is trying to be, the more realism I expect.

    Laura, I think you've hit on another big element--writer skill. It only takes a few subtle words to make something believable, but if those words are missing it can really yank a reader out of that world.

    Minuteman, I just said to Jami above something similar. Dystopians need that caution to be real dystopians. Which might actually be why some of the things that bother some people about them don't bother me. I see them as fantasy or sci fi first, dystopian second. I don't mind what Captain Mal does as long and I can come along ;)

    Kirsten, lol. I do that too. Isn't it crazy to accept so much, then one weird thing happens and you can't accept it. My husband will do that, and then I'll turn to him and say "you bought the dead guy coming back to life, but this you have a problem with?"

    Jami, good point re allegory. I guess dystopia is more fantasy/light sci fi based right now because of the flood, but there are examples of it in all kinds of genres. One book that pops to mind is The Last Town on Earth. Historical, literary, based on a true story, but it has a lot of dystopian elements to it (cautionary tale, broken society, a society created as a utopia fell) that it does quality.

    It has been interesting! Glad I finally got this post done. It's been half written for months :)

    Rachel, that's what really makes me nuts. Someone will buy it in TV but not a book. Although to be honest, I'm kinda like that. I do expect more from a book than TV, but I also understand the limits of TV. But I'm far more likely to yell at the TV for it (yeah, I do that) than be bothered by it in a book. Kind of a strange thing now that I write it down.

    Taurean, no worries, I just saw that you took a hard turn there and wanted to bring you back :)

    Eisen, it's not realistic, but it's a strong metaphor for class separations and a drastic level or partisan politics. And it was explained in the beginning with enough of a "okay, this is why" that I accepted the premise. I guess I never expected it to be real, just pose an interesting question.

    Though I'd actually love to see a book where everyone is happy all the time and what happens. That's a great what if premise.

    A lot of it has to do with taste as well. I don't need a lot to get me to buy into a premise. Show me you thought about it and explain it up front and I'll usually go with you if I like the idea. But if you don't explain it and have it hanging there for half the book, I'll have issues. (I ran into this with Shiver actually. If cold made them turn into wolves, why not just move to Florida? She explains it, but not until the second half of the novel) Folks who want a more solid foundation will need more to buy into a premise.

    Chihuahua Zero, it has! It's been fun and interesting. That's cool about TV Tropes. I bet that's a good one, too.

  35. Wow Janice! You really got some passionate views on this post. This is a great debate. How much mythological fact to add to my fantasy WIP is something I have been struggling with. The fear that knowledgeable people who are more familiar with the myths that I'm using will complain about my story has been stifling. I've come to the conclusion that fantasy is supposed to be made up and that's just something the reader needs to accept from the author, period.

  36. Books can be realistic in different ways; realistic stories, realistic characters, realistic psychological mechanisms. Personally, I prefer a realistic setting and plot. I never read sci-fi and adventure and stuff like that. I thrashed Lord of the Rings after 50 pages, and Harry Potter is the most boring I've ever read (read parts of the 1st book with the kids). But I really enjoyed The Hitchhiker's guide books by Douglas Adams >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  37. I'm a strong advocate for the infinite of imagination. I hate when readers (and writers) put limitations on stories and style that have nothing to do with suspension of disbelief or industry standards like the Chicago Manual of Style (is that what it's called?).

    I write paranormal, scifi, and fantasy so I'm always pushing the limits. If we forced all writers to be "realistic", we'd run out of ideas in no time.

    So long as the reader can immerse himself in the world and connect with the characters, the sky's the limit as far as I'm concerned.

  38. If the work doesn't make the pretense of "reality" then I don't judge it against reality.

    But the problem is that people have gotten away from metaphor (at least in what I'm reading) - no one's writing Animal Farm anymore that I'm finding. If you're trying to make things gritty and real, then things that don't feel "real' will jar, it can't be helped.

    It feels like kind of a sliding scale - the more reality that people put into things such as character psychology and the logic of magic systems, the more stringent the criteria for suspension of disbelief.

  39. Marti, I have two crit pals who write myths, and they have a tough time with that as well. They totally get each others' work, but the rest of us in the group are sometimes lost. I think it depends on how much are you relying on the reader to know to get what's going on.

    Cold As Heaven, which is funny considering how outlandish and unrealistic Hitchhiker's Guide is. But I agree that taste plays a big role as well. If a reader prefers realism, the more a story veers off from that the less they're likely to enjoy it.

    Danielle, it all comes down to the plausibility factor. Make it feel real and readers will go with you (most of them)

    JD Paradise, I love it. I think you're right about this. We ARE pushing reality so it makes sense that readers expect more realism even in our fantasy. You see the same things with CGI in movies.

  40. Marti, I have two crit pals who write myths, and they have a tough time with that as well. They totally get each others' work, but the rest of us in the group are sometimes lost. I think it depends on how much are you relying on the reader to know to get what's going on.

    Cold As Heaven, which is funny considering how outlandish and unrealistic Hitchhiker's Guide is. But I agree that taste plays a big role as well. If a reader prefers realism, the more a story veers off from that the less they're likely to enjoy it.

    Danielle, it all comes down to the plausibility factor. Make it feel real and readers will go with you (most of them)

    JD Paradise, I love it. I think you're right about this. We ARE pushing reality so it makes sense that readers expect more realism even in our fantasy. You see the same things with CGI in movies.

  41. This is the issue I face all the time with my collaborator who is also my husband. The story is ancient mythology, he's ok with half horse half man but not ok with it having the ability to shapeshift. I like this post as it reminds me that even though my husband is a big help to certain points of the story, I should still keep asking questions that fit within the "fantasy" realm of "what if?" Thank you

  42. Yes, yes, and yes. The worst reviews on my YA books are from adults (not teens) who think the book isn't realistic. "A popular boy can't possibly fall in love with a girl he hasn't spoken to in a week's time," is one of the biggest. Another involved teens getting married at age 18. I'm sorry, but I was married at 19. Part of fiction is the "fantasy" of it. Thanks so much for this post.

  43. Stephanie, most welcome!

    Suzanne, totally, I see that all the time. This aren't always supposed to be real.

  44. It might also be that the critic wasn't a fantasy reader, and the other readers mentioned above drawn to fantasy because it was a best seller -- but not the normal readers. Years ago, I ran into a writer who found thrillers absolutely unbelievable because the Library of Alexandria was destroyed; the Elixir of Life doesn't exist; and so forth. Which was also why he wasn't a regular reader of thrillers and I was.

    1. This is true. It is good to consider the source in these things, though I did hear this particular comment from multiple sources. I think that's why it really stood out to me. But yes, if someone doesn't like a particular genre or trope, even the best book in that genre will fall flat for them.

  45. I didn't read all the comments, but I completely agree. I love unrealistic realism that is plausible and fits with the story. That's why I read.