The Taste for Realism
I have seen, and admittedly indulged in that fan activity I will call the Fact Checking Game. It goes like this: First, you take some work of fiction, particularly a popular one, and you find some fascinating idea or claim it has. Then you deconstruct it with real world logic, checking all the facts and invariably coming up with an unrealistic or at least implausible conclusion. At this point, bemoaning that the creator did not think of this may commence. As a sequel, you can find some plausible counterpoint, and argue with the proponents of the former conclusion until the cows come home.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing.
Indeed, I would say it is a great thing, insomuch as the fans (or, alternately, haters) clearly feel something deeply about the art, to the point of contemplating even its weak points. And the counterpoint activity has its own attraction, in finding hints, intentional or unintentional, that the creator did think of it, and thus it is not, in fact, unrealistic. It can be taken to absurd proportions, but anything can be done immoderately save for the adoration of God.
Allow me to posit a theory of realism, which I call the Level Theory.
There are things which are blatantly obviously unrealistic–for example, depicting an elephant surviving a fall from a skyscraper. Only in the most abstract or stylized works could such things pass muster. Such a thing is Level 0 realism, and there is nothing wrong with a work that has such realism. (C.f. Spongebob.)
Level 1 is when breaks from reality have been made, but they obviously conflict. For example, in the Re: Zero anime the protagonist is depicted as strong and muscular, having worked out, but then later in the series he is a mere weakling. These are harder than it seems to avoid, especially as a work increases in depth and length, but nonetheless, this is a good standard to aim for.
Level 2 is when there are conflicting, but non-obvious, consequences to the the direct words of the novel (let us speak of written fiction for the moment.) For example, we read that one of the Great Eagles can outrace a Nazgûl–which brings the question suggested by many, of why the Fellowship of the Ring could not just fly to Mordor directly and get it all done with at the beginning of the book. Indeed, having a watertight book that is Level 2 all the way would be difficult, or perhaps even impossible without a tolerant reader who is willing to play author’s advocate.
Level 3 is the conflict of the consequences of the consequences of the direct experience of the artwork in question. To stick my own neck out for a moment, if in The City and the Dungeon, there is occasional hyperinflation, how is there anything resembling a normal economy? Why work at all? (I have answered this in Book 2, which is still coming!) In truth, this level of realism is nigh-impossible; one would have to be some level of absolute master to create a fiction that was absolutely water-tight at this level. Again, fans can patch holes left by the author, and this is on some level necessary for the suspension of disbelief in more thoughtful works.
Level 4 is the consequences of the consequences of the consequences, and Level 5 is the way beyond that, up to a theoretical Level Infinity, where some god among men created a work of fiction that anticipated and answered every possible question and covered every possible stain of inaccuracy. Such a work is impossible for a mortal to create, for who but God alone would be able to extrapolate a fictional world to such an extent?
Let me say, before abandoning this theory, that any given work varies between these levels. Death Note is a Eastern work that does not concern itself with realism per se, the section where L and Kira are working together is highly implausible from a standpoint of “realism.” Yet I cannot think of a Level 0, 1, or 2 violation of the Death Note’s rules themselves (speaking of the anime here), and indeed it may reach Level 3 in consistency. Similarly, there are many realistic Western novels that get tiny things about hacking wrong, but they are not overall unrealistic.
But as I said, I abandon this theory. The truth is, people do not play the Fact Checking Game as an idle intellectual pursuit, they play it because it calls to them. And indeed, although I inwardly swore to write “realistic” fiction, and found it far more difficult than I imagined, I still spend significant time leveling up my work’s consistency, so to speak.
I suspect what we actually all seek is truth.
Consider, for example, a man punching another in the face. In movies–which we all guiltily acknowledge are unrealistic–this leads to a minor injury at most. But in fact a single punch can break a hand or even a skull. This is the truth of reality, and including such a detail–even if it requires more effort on the creator’s part–touches some primordial desire in us to see reality as it is, and not merely as we wish it to be.
But I say the above, never having punched a man in the face. Indeed, perhaps more than truth per se is our desire for authoritative truth. If I write a novel where a man fatally punches another, I am simply repeating what my more martially inclined friends and personal research has shown. (That said, in my wider community, a young college student was beaten to death after a bar fight, so I do speak with some sliver of authority.) We wish, deep down, to be told what the truth is, not merely to hear it blithely stated and asked to find out for ourselves. For from whom can you learn this? Are you going to go out and punch a man to death?
All our fiction, from Spongebob to Death Note, speaks of some truth we which to hear, not from the author, but from an authority. Indeed, the two words are not false cognates–author came first in Latin, then authority soon followed. It is the great tragedy of our time that we are losing authorities we can all rely on, or even agree on. Fiction, for the moment, is a safe harbor, where whether or not you agree with Tolkein’s politics, at least we can agree that the Ring must be destroyed, Eagle-wise or not, for Sauron to be defeated. And any who dares transgress this peace treaty–who speaks one word that is charged politically–drags both his work and himself into the blender of the culture war, never to be the same afterwards.
I beg you, fellow authors, do not let this happen. Let your authority be for good.
Let your authority be for truth.
I have always been inspired by the story of Fredrick Douglass, a slave who escaped slavery to become a renowned orator and author. His is not the story of a man who was second-rate, shooed into the spotlight only for his relative accomplishments compared to his past. What use would that be? No, he was not merely any random speaker, but Fredrick Douglass, a name that survives to this day in history books, no matter how often it is skimmed over.
A shameless plug for someone else.
No, this is not a post about the culture war. Chill.
This post is about writing other cultures such that they are believable–not as middle-class Westerners wearing funny hats, but as fundamentally different worlds.