Q&A: Realism

Do you look down on people who don’t write certain scenarios as “realistically” as they could? I generally try and do research but sometimes I just want to tell a story, you know, I’m working towards the character journey and emotional fulfilment, I’m not writing non-fiction. Especially with fanfiction where I’m not getting paid and I’m just doing this for fun.

This is going to be one of those “it depends” answers.  In this case the answer centers on what you mean by “realistic”, and even then it isn’t “look down on” so much as be “disappointed by”.

Here’s the criteria:

1) Does the scene behave in accordance with the setting rules set forward by the narrative?

2) Are the characters behaving in accordance to and making decisions which jive with their previous decisions/who they’ve been established to be?

3) If they break with those, is the narrative exploring the consequences of those choices and the impact on the character? i.e. Showing me what happens when a character who abhors violence is suddenly forced to engage in violence?

4) Are the characters behaving in ways that jive with their established skill levels? Is the character who has never engaged in violence before carving their way through experienced combatants with no issues? Is this explained or any in-narrative justification given for the behavior? Are there consequences?

3) Does something happen?

4) Is it interesting?

5) Did I enjoy it?

Ultimately as a reader, I want narrative consistency. I don’t care if you break completely with how something would work in the real world so long as it jives with what your characters would do in the given scenario. The thing to understand about fight scenes is that what makes them interesting isn’t the violence itself but rather what the violence leads to. Acknowledging that skill and talent are separate, that it takes work to acquire new skills, accepting that your characters will not be perfect at everything, that they’ll have to learn and in some cases fail, will ultimately lead to better storytelling. Learning as much as you can about human behavior will make forging your way through easier for you because most of this comes down to logical/emotional reactions to stress.

With a fight scene, you’ve put your character in a boiling pot. What happens next is what’s most important, and what your characters do is what the audience is invested in. Learning all you can about how violence works in the real world doesn’t mean you’re beholden to it. Real violence is not entertaining. In terms of entertainment, violence is boring, it is over too quickly, and occurs too fast for one to fully process it. If you were to write a fight scene exactly like one would experience it in reality, you’d be up a creek. It wouldn’t be interesting to your audience. Totally accurate representation or imitation is what the audience thinks they’re supposed to want, and what some authors believe they’re supposed to give. However, neither are possible. Most of the fight scenes you’ll have people point to as being accurate are actually nowhere close.

I’ll level with you on this: I don’t find Luke Skywalker to be a boring character. I find him fascinating, and I have since I was about seven years old. His training with Yoda is “realistic” in that it jives with my own experiences when I’ve encountered martial arts masters and the way they’ve spoken about the more esoteric portions of martial arts. However, I’d have checked out with him if he beat Darth Vader in single combat during Empire Strikes Back. It wouldn’t be logical, it wouldn’t make sense for him to be able to fight on an even field with Darth Vader after so little training. Certainly not to a standstill, and especially not to victory. The only reason he held his own for so long was due to Vader attempting to capture him alive.

This is an example of narrative consistency, we have explanations for what happened and why. We know what both Luke and Vader were attempting to accomplish from that exchange, and more importantly what that failure taught Luke. The final battle of Empire Strikes Back not only moves the narrative forward but serves as a catalyst for Luke’s character development going into Return of the Jedi. He fails, but he learns from that failure and his failure is due to his personal flaws which have been shown throughout A New Hope and Empire.

What I don’t like is a hero suddenly being able to go toe to toe with the narrative’s main villain with no explanation and no reasoning, especially when it’s been consistently shown throughout the narrative that skill is learned and natural talent requires training.

Luke couldn’t have tackled Vader head on in A New Hope. Though he’s given the lightsaber, we never see him use it until the second movie and he only uses it with any real proficiency after his training with Yoda. This is in keeping with the established rules that the lightsaber is a Jedi weapon and requires specific training in the Force itself for one to be able to use it. More than that, the dueling in Star Wars is based in Kendo and following specific rules on swordplay. There is no assumption that skill in one kind of combat means one is proficient in all versions of combat.

Here’s what you should understand.

Your character doesn’t need to be good at fighting in order for me to enjoy or be invested in their fight scene.

Your protagonists can cower and curl up in a corner, hiding from everything and I will still be invested in their narrative if this behavior fits with their skill level, experience, and philosophy.

Your fight scenes are graded by me on how well they move your story forward, and a fight scene that is not true to who your characters are is, for me, boring.

The rules you established for your setting and how well you hold to them is what I care about because this is the thread which maintains my suspension of disbelief.

I am invested in your characters, I care about their narrative, and who I’m told they are. I don’t need them to be extensions of me or a stand in, I don’t need them to be something they’re not. I care about the rules of your setting which you established, and which you are honor bound to follow. Cheating at the rules you established is like cheating in the middle of a poker game. I don’t care you can peek at all the cards on the table, but when you start actively favoring one party at the expense of the others and changing the rules to make things easier is the point I check out. That’s not why I watch people play poker. If you start changing the rules on me, especially without explanation, then I can’t trust you anymore.

Between you and the reader is a clause of trust established on that first page. This clause needs to be honored. Ultimately, that’s the only piece of integrity you should care about. I’m not saying you should care about what they think or where they believe your story should be going, but the trust established between the two of you about the ongoing rules the narrative will function under is sacred. This core truth is the real point behind world building.

Without trust, there’s no one to read your story.


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