Yes, but is it realistic?

Lately, I’ve been pondering the role of grit and realism in the fantasy genre.  How little is too little?  Is there such a thing as too much?  And what does “realism” mean when it comes to fantasy, anyway?

It’s Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” that got me thinking about this in the first place.  For those who haven’t read it, or who aren’t familiar with his excellent First Law series, Abercrombie populates his tales with characters real enough to make you despair for the fate of humanity.  Whether they’re obsessed, driven, or shiftless, his characters are pretty much all self-centered, deeply flawed, and prone to violence.  Their adventures make for good, if sometimes bleak, reading, but his books have also made me wonder if there’s such a thing as too much realism.

If Tolkein’s misty elves and noble kings-in-exile are at one end of the “realism” spectrum, then Abercrombie’s characters fall at the far, far distant extreme.  You may get pulled along by his stories, immersed in his highly believable worlds, and even come to root for certain of the characters, but there’s little chance you’d actually want to spend time with any of them.  They are, by and large, not nice people.

This very fact, of course, is what makes Abercrombie’s characters so human – they’re jealous and petty and do spiteful things.  They act against their own interests because they just can help it.  They almost never change themselves for the better and almost always resolve their problems by running away, stabbing someone in the back, or just stabbing someone, period.  We read about them and we recognize the baser, less lovable parts of ourselves.

This kind of writing, let’s be honest, is rare in the fantasy genre.  I mean, most of the stuff out there falls into the “brave band of heroes” camp, without reflecting much on who the heroes are slaughtering (after all, they’re the good guys, so it must be justified).  So, there’s an important place for Abercrombie’s kind of fiction.  But sometimes I wonder if he’s left out the most human elements of all from his characters.  Sure, his books have a smattering of forgiveness and loyalty, the occasional shred of redemption, and even a rare hint that people are capable of loving someone other than themselves.  But such aspects of human nature are few and far between.

Is that realism?  I don’t know, but I really hope not.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Abercrombie’s books and I will continue to devour them when they’re released.  But I don’t think they’re realistic.

I guess some people might find it odd to pair the ideas of “realism” and “fantasy” at all.  By definition, fantasy is the unreal, is that which we imagine.  But the best fantasy strives to make its imaginary worlds feel like they could be real places and its characters act in the complex and often contradictory ways that real humans do.

Consider George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire.  Here are characters that (to me) feel realistic.  The conniving and murderous are still capable of love, even if that love is twisted.  The honorable and brave can be stubborn and blind, their nobility dooming both themselves and others to death.  Jealousy can lead to kindness, love to betrayal.  Nor are these characters free of the mundane realities of being living animals.  They eat and vomit and shit and suffer and screw–and Martin’s descriptions of these acts leave nothing to the imagination.  You believe his characters are experiencing what they do not because he tells you, but because he shows you with unrelentingly realistic prose.  Martin, of course, is not alone in writing this kind of fiction.  Of the things I’ve read recently, both Steven Erikson’s Malazan series and David Anthony Durham’s “Acacia” both come to mind.

Personally, I’m of two minds about how to incorporate realism into my writing.  On the one hand, I have a generally low opinion of humanity as a whole.  Our history reflects poorly on us, unless war and violence against the weak is what we’re striving for.  And yet, we’re obviously capable of creating beautiful things, too.  Plus, on an individual level, people may be cruel one minute and commit breathtaking acts of self-sacrifice, kindness, and love the next.  We engage in both groan-inducing predictability and devilish unpredictability.

It’s possible that we err in focusing only on characters here.  This may be as much about world-building as character-building.  Perhaps our worlds should better reflect the rapaciousness of humankind and our characters better embody the contradictory and stutter-stop urges towards a more noble ideal.

What do you think?  Are Martin and others like him hitting the right notes of realism for you, or do you prefer Abercrombie’s grittier fare?  Can our characters have some good sprinkled in with their bad and still feel real?  Do we need to be careful of over-emphasizing nuanced “realer than real” characters at the expense of building honest-feeling worlds?

5 thoughts on “Yes, but is it realistic?

  1. seamusbayne

    I totally feel there is not enough realism in the genre. I read this and think, “Hell, I should have had a character vomit in that scene!” This kind of stark, often brutally honest realism is something I appreciate as a reader, but forget in my own writing. Tidy is so easy, so natural. You want your characters to deal with the best and worst, but so often we forget that includes the less cinematic aspects of being alive.


    P.S. I love this theme, it seems to be a common one chosen by writers. I think that is amusing that we seem to gravitate to it. I use it as well on my blog.

  2. mirandasuri

    Hi Seamus,

    I definitely agree. I have to work very hard to remember to include realism in my writing. It’s relatively easy to go back and work in gritty sights, sounds, smells and tastes in a rewrite, but getting in the higher order realism is more of a challenge. Fantasy does lend itself unfortunately well to — as you put it — a certain tidiness. Here’s to more vomit!

  3. Ted Cross

    George R.R. Martin is the perfect fantasy writer for me. I love his version of gritty realism. I wanted to see this style done in high fantasy, which I haven’t seen before, so I wrote my novel for that purpose. I have human ugliness, of course, but I have a lot more human good also. I have Abercrombie on my read list, so I can’t say anything about him yet except that he sounds like he goes a bit overboard on the bad side of things.

  4. Ace

    I’m all for realism in fantasy. But I hope we take care not to push it too far. Is the vomiting there just to have vomit or is it significant of a character or their behavior?

  5. mirandasuri

    Ted and Ace, thanks for chiming in! I agree that it can be a problem if a writer goes too far or tries to incorporate graphic or gritty details simply for effect. One of things I was trying to get at in my post was: how do we know where to draw the line? What’s too much, what’s too little? I think you’re right, Ace, to point out that realism should spring from the characters, their behavior, and the situations they find themselves in. We shouldn’t avoid the vomit if it’s needed, but neither should we put it in just to shock.

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