Thursday, April 03, 2014

What's Unrealistic?

The most recent issue of RWR, the official magazine of Romance Writers of America, includes an article about realistic and unrealistic writing, with a discussion of what kinds of unrealistic features readers can be induced to accept in fiction and why. As an example of what not to do, the author describes a scene in a novel where a pan of scrambled eggs burns to a charred mess in seconds when the heroine turns her back on it. This incident violates what all readers know about the physics of cooking eggs and adds nothing essential to the story. In contrast, the author mentions various examples of “good” unrealism for which readers readily suspend disbelief because they’re built into the premises of the works: Stephanie Plum manages to keep her bail bondsman job despite being hilariously incompetent at it. In the TV series MURDER, SHE WROTE, a small-town writer stumbles upon and solves a new murder every week. (We might apply the same principle to any of the classic cozy mystery series, such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels.) Another example I could add is, as Isaac Asimov points out somewhere, P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves series. How can the dimwitted first-person narrator, the amiable nincompoop Bertie Wooster, manage to tell those stories so well?

The RWR article, however, also cites the Harry Potter saga, in which Harry and his friends belong to a magical subculture alongside but mostly invisible to mundane society. In my opinion, the author is mixing up two different types of “non-realism” here. What would be “unrealistic” in the Harry Potter universe would be Snape suddenly becoming affectionate and indulgent toward Harry or Voldemort repenting instead of fighting to the death. The characters in Rowling’s books don’t violate the attitudes and behavior we would expect from their personalities as created. The magic in this series, a “given” of Rowling’s fictional universe, isn’t “unrealistic” in the same sense as the ostensibly “realistic” worlds of Stephanie Plum and MURDER, SHE WROTE, which require us to accept as foundational premises that people behave differently from the way they would in “real life.” (Stephanie manages to keep her job and catch the crooks despite her bumbling; the local police of that town in New England don't suspect the writer of being a serial killer even though victims constantly drop dead all around her. In the new TV series HANNIBAL, by the way, we similarly have to accept Dr. Lecter’s preternatural skill at escaping detection despite all the victims he has killed and eaten parts of over the course of one season.)

It’s an established principle of fiction-writing that the author can get away with one unlikelihood or impossibility (or, as in the case of a magical world, one cluster of related phenomena) as long as it’s built into the story as a foundational premise. “Unrealistic” elements dragged in ad hoc to spice up a scene or solve a problem, on the other hand, destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief and wrench him or her out of the story. Where do you draw the line?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. Thanks for this, Margaret. I found it very interesting. IMHO, one is unwise to ask readers to suspend disbelief too many times.

  2. Right, and especially in creating a system of rules for a supernatural background. The conditions of the ghosts, magic, vampires,etc. have to be made clear and not violated for the author's convenience later. And IMO it's especially important in a fantasy story to make the details of everyday life and the characters' behavior believable in order to keep the reader predisposed to accept the imaginary bits.