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?