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Fiction is Not Reality April 6, 2020

"People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile."
- from Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Earlier this year, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone. This past week, cooped up at home during the coronavirus outbreak, I wandered back onto the platform to amuse myself between manic bouts of home renovation. I quickly remembered why I quit.

Twitter adores outrage.

With the economy plummeting and everyday life rapidly evolving, many people feel unstable, afraid, anxious, and bored. It's tempting to say they're only picking fights online to vent their frustration and uncertainty.

But Twitter has ardently devoted itself to manufactured conflict since long before the current pandemic. Social media rewards content that generates intense emotion: shock, fear, and anger. When Twitter can't find anything to be afraid or angry about, they'll invent something and whip themselves into a frenzy over it.

Example #1: In January a romance author aged 60+ opined that using profanity in fiction is lazy. The #writingcommunity responded that she's a judgemental fucking bitch who needs to grow up, because in the real world every mature adult adores profanity. How dare this puritanical cunt try to sanitize literature?

Example #2: The same week, a writer posed this question ostensibly for discussion, but transparently for drama: "Is it okay to write a main character who's a misogynist? Or are people today just too sensitive?"

When others responded a sexist hero is a bad idea, the writer and his friends railed against censorship and cancel culture. They argued many men today are misogynist, and shouldn't art reflect real life?

"Realism" seems to be the favored excuse for bad morals and plain old bad writing. Whenever writers face criticism for writing unethical lessons, racist/sexist stereotypes, or language that needlessly upsets readers, the common response is, "But those things are realistic."

Fiction is always artificial.

Art does reflect real life, but only one tiny slice of it at a time.

When painting, a visual artist decides which details to emphasize and which to discard. Too much noise clutters a composition. Even when taking photographs and videos with a high-resolution camera capable of capturing every individual bump on the wall and thread in the carpet, the artist decides what to focus on, what to blur, and what to crop out of the frame.

Similarly, every writer decides what to represent on the page and what to leave out. The goal of fiction is to entertain, and/or to communicate specific themes and lessons. If the goal were to reflect reality, characters would take bathroom breaks once an hour, spend half of the book doing mundane chores, and speak in fragments with meaningless filler words.

A realistic adult conversation looks like this.




"Tell me."

"Nothing, I said. Really just, uh, stupid..."

"That again?"

"Just, yeah. My brain just know?"

"Well, stop."

"Yeah, yeah."

We don't write fictional dialogue like that. We mimic natural speech; we don't transcribe it. Our characters fully articulate what they're thinking without the clutter of unnecessary adverbs.

Much of the profanity I see in contemporary fiction is equally unnecessary clutter. Characters use "fucking" like an edgy version of "really." I fucking hate this. This is fucking boring. She's fucking pissed at you right now.

If the people who vehemently defend extraneous "fuckings" were truly devoted to realism, they'd be equally incensed by the idea of cutting out excessive repetitions of "really" and "actually." Yet they're not, because realism isn't their real problem.

The defense of "realism" is usually about pride, not art.

People flew off the handle over the sexagenarian romance author's comments on Twitter not because she threatened literature, but because she threatened egos. Writers felt like children scolded by the English teacher, so they lashed out in the name of defending artistic integrity.

Similarly, people who use realism to excuse bad morals in fiction are usually battling a perceived threat to their self-image.

When people expressed anger about Chinese stereotypes in Somewhere Lies the Moon, the author asserted that she studied Chinese history for seven years, and therefore those offensive passages were accurate, not racist.

When readers objected to a rape scene in the historical novel Voyager (the third novel in the Outlander series), the author responded that consent is a "useful fiction" constructed in the last fifty years. Real people of the time period wouldn't have called the encounter rape, Q.E.D the hero did nothing wrong.

Both of these authors cited "historical accuracy" as justification not because they're passionately devoted to scholarship, but because the criticisms called their ethics into question. From their angry and self-righteous responses, you can see both considered themselves highly intelligent and enlightened women. The implication they could ever write something racist or sexist seems deeply unfair.

Did people have a different definition of rape the 18th century? Probably. But that's clearly not what the Voyager author was thinking about when she wrote...

Half-dazed, he fought to keep her under him, while groping madly for something to say to calm her.

"But—," he said.

"Stop it!"


"Take it out!" she screamed.

He clapped one hand over her mouth and said the only coherent thing he could think of.

"No," he said defiantly, and shoved.

When the author asserts this is a portrayal of a totally-not-rape sexual encounter in 1746, she isn't fighting for her right to teach history through fiction. She's fighting against the obvious conclusion that when she wrote this book, she thought "forced seduction" is fun and sexy.

Fiction exists for an audience.

According to the Voyager author's Facebook rant, the hero had admirable motivations: he was trying to show the girl a good time, he believed she was only panicking because she was a virgin, and he was convinced the hysterics would drag on all night if he didn't get it over with.

The scene she actually wrote gives readers a different impression. (That's a lot of supposed thinking for a man who couldn't dredge up a coherent thought.) Contrary to the willful belief of writers everywhere, we don't get to decide how readers interpret our publications. If many people read a scene and say, "This idealizes rape," then the scene idealizes rape. If we feel compelled to explain that our intentions were different, then we failed as writers. It's our job to communicate clearly on the page, so readers will see what we want to show them.

Reality check: no art exists in a vacuum. If you want to successfully convey a message, you must keep in mind who will receive it.

Many people have a visceral negative reaction to profanity. Strong swear words disgust them. If you sprinkle "fuckings" around like "reallys," you will alienate those readers. If you're writing a story that might appeal to those people, ask yourself: Is it worth it? Is the de-stigmatization of angry four-letter words an important battle to pick right now? Or will profanity unnecessarily limit my audience and muddy up my message? The answers are up to you, but "those readers need to stop being so sensitive" is not an option.

Many more people hate misogyny. You want to write about a hero who looks down on women because it's realistic? Go ahead, but you can't act surprised and hurt when readers assume you're a misogynist.

Fiction communicates ideals.

Readers will interpret a book within the context of their experiences with other books, TV shows, video games, etc. And those experiences will have taught them that protagonists represent our cultural ideals.

Protagonists can have relatively minor flaws. They can have anger management issues, or self-esteem issues, or hard snarky exoskeletons to protect their soft golden hearts. But they must be relateable and sympathetic, and in most genres they must ultimately act heroically, the way readers want to believe they'd act in the same situations.

Misogyny and racism are too abhorrent to be minor character flaws, and they're still too prevalent to be obviously villainous traits. Murder has been taboo for millennia, so when you write from the perspective of a serial killer, everyone knows you're not trying to say murder is okay. But because many people today say sexist and racist things all the time, readers will assume a sexist/racist protagonist must have been written by someone who wants to promote those views.

Bias shapes what we call "realistic."

People say depressing literary fiction and violent thrillers are realistic, but romances with happy endings are not. They say depictions of selfish anti-heroes are realistic, but nice heroes and heroines are "unrealistically perfect."

Humans fall in love and get married more often then they get violently murdered by psychopaths. Most people I meet are nice and civil, not bitter and self-destructive. Even the angstiest teens can't brood 24/7—they have to take a break for sandwiches and cat videos eventually. Everyone has issues, but they rarely go to the extremes of despair and moral failings portrayed in fiction.

Yet we stubbornly insist dark subjects are "real" and light ones are not. Our long tradition of misogyny in literature has much to do with it. Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Steinbeck are classic geniuses, but Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott are a waste of time. Or, as Hawthorne himself put it, they're "a damned mob of scribbling women" ruining the exalted art of wordsmithery with their sentimental tosh.

What is realism in fiction?

To sum up so far...

  • Fiction is never completely "realistic," and it shouldn't be.
  • People tend to twist the idea of realism to excuse content that upsets readers and teaches bad lessons.
  • Western culture considers misery more "real" than joy.

None of this means realism in fiction is a worthless concept. When it's not used as a weapon to beat down "too sensitive" critics and damned mobs of scribbling women, realism is a valid goal for writers.

But if realism isn't romanticized rape, offensive cynicism, or shocking rude words, what is it?

There is no objective definition of realism, because realism is all about feelings. A story either feels real to a reader, or it doesn't.

When readers can identify with characters, place themselves in the same fictional world, and experience the same emotions, they'll say a story feels real. Think about books like the Hunger Games series, The Handmaid's Tale, or any Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King novel. The premises are objectively outrageous. Yet thousands insist the stories are "so real it's scary," because the experiences of the characters resonate with them so strongly.

Does Katniss Everdeen say "fuck" in every sentence to prove she's a real teenage girl? No. Does Peeta make sexist comments because "locker-room talk" is common among boys his age? Also no. These characters are highly idealized, but to young adult readers, they're real. Not because they use current slang or make sarcastic pop culture references or any other minute details writers obsess over, but because they have relateable emotions. Peeta gets scared and hurt. Katniss gets angry at the numerous structural injustices hurting her loved ones and ruining her life. Both feel trapped and lost in a messed-up world run by selfish adults. What fifteen-year-old couldn't relate?

To write realism, we need to dig deep. Deeper than mimicking verbal crutches, deeper than facts we learned in history classes, and certainly much deeper than "people do bad things." Realism is creating the illusion of humanity on the page.


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