Friday, December 07, 2007

Real, Really Real, Realesque

Sometimes I think that we as writers get too hung up on making things real. By that, I mean really real, or in near perfect correspondence with the way a thing is in outside reality.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a stickler for things like physicality and staying within the laws of physics (or at least having a good in-story explanation of why something behaves outside our reality). Anyone who's ever been in a writers group with me will vouch for that.

The reason for that is that people have a really thorough grounding in our physical reality. A reader may not spend much time thinking about the way stuff falls, but they will sure as hell notice if things fall wrong and this will distance the reader from the story.

However, I don't believe that this grounding in physical reality always carries over to social, economic, or psychological realities. In fact, we often have impressions of these things that are distorted or simply wrong, due to any number of cultural or personal factors. This is so strong that sometimes, making something really real actually takes you away from the way that the reader understands things to such a degree that getting it right produces much the same distancing effect that getting a physical detail wrong will have.

This makes for a tricky balancing act between getting it right (making it really real) which most writers want to do most of the time and getting it to feel right (making it realesque, or story real).

If the really real thing is something that is central to the story or to the writer then, of course, it will often off to make it so, and to give the reader the context they need to understand that this is the way it really and truly works. If however, the really real detail is peripheral, or too far from reader understanding of how it works, then it is often simpler and a stronger choice to go with realesque.

I come at this from the point of view of someone who started out by trying to put some really real stuff into stories about dealing with someone with a mental illness. I grew up in a house with a paranoid schizophrenic, and have spent 40 years dealing with the really real of being forever tied to someone who is mentally ill. It's a topic that is important to me.

It's also one where I have found that really real doesn't work nearly as well as realesque. I can't tell you how many times I have had a reader simply flat out disbelieve something that actually happened and I have had to go back and reshape the really real into a significantly fictionalized but much more reader believable realesque. Importantly, very importantly, I think that I have given more people a better understanding of the actual situation that way than I would have if I'd stuck to my guns and insisted on going for the really real.

Because of this, I tend to pick up a grain or two of salt whenever I read someone–usually another writer, but occasionally a reader–obsessing about writers who don't make the details of their pet obsession really real. In fiction at least, the really real is sometimes less true and less effective than the realesque.

Thoughts? Comments? Violent disagreement?


Naomi said...

The way I've heard this expressed is that reality is under absolutely no obligation to be plausible, believable, or realistic. Fiction is. So if you're incorporating reality into your fiction, you need to alter it as necessary to make it plausible, believable, and realistic in a way that the original events might not have been.

Kelly McCullough said...

That's a nice succinct way of putting the core of it, Naomi.

This post was generated by following a link from a writer's blog to a long rant on how everybody in hot sub-genre A was getting all the political and economic details of the thing all wrong and should fix it right now. There were extensive discursions on the way things really worked and praise from a number of writers saying yes this was all so.

I had two enormous problems with this. One is addressed in this post. The other has to do with certain underlying assumptions in the rant as to the one true purpose of writing (gritty realism), or at least that's how I read it.

I'm all for gritty realism being the one true aim of books actually devoted to gritty realism, but hey that's only one tiny slice of the fiction market, even in hot sub-genre A which has more than its share of grit.

Ann Wilkes said...

I know what you mean about the really real being unbelievable. I had everyone in my SF writers workshop telling me that I couldn't have a field of lava rocks without the reader wondering where the volcano is. I had a character get cut on a sharp protrusion while running through it. It happened to me while hiking in WA where I grew up. The volcano? What volcano? They were all dormant around there. No one ever thought about them till Mt. St. Helens blew. In the end, I researched and found the term for the field. It's an aa, believe it or not. And I deleted the scene. Too much work to make my "baby" work. If I ever write about my young adult life it will have to be really fictionalized not just to protect the people still living but to be believable. Might have to have a RX for depression while remembering it all to put it on paper. And if it's too real, it would be too depressing to read.

If we want to be read, we have to write for our audience, not for our own satisfaction or personal therapy.

My two cents. Thanks for the great topic. I wrote about plausibility in TV characters a couple entries ago myself. Check it out here:

Kelly McCullough said...

Hi Ann,

Thanks for commenting. Nice post on TV characters.

Network Geek said...

I've always preferred that things in fiction be "real-ish". You know, like "I'm not a Jew, just Jew-ish".

Seriously, as long as I can suspend disbelief, it's real enough.