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The Significance of Realism in Fiction

Posted by CW64 on October 20, 2009

Earlier this evening, I read an article discussing the level of realism in TV medical shows. The article featured an actual doctor who distinguished the accuracies and inaccuracies regarding a collection of new shows due out this fall. His explanations were very detailed regarding the particular scene and certain procedures and hospital protocol. Following the article were five comment pages filled mostly with criticisms by those who work in the medical field in one capacity or another. Their points were very poignant and insightful. That got me to thinking about how realism, or reality, is depicted in fiction.

What role does or should reality play in fiction? How should the creator or creators  (writer/producers/actors and actresses) approach it?

I consider this point every time I site down and write, even in works that deal with the paranormal, such as ghost stories (yes, I believe in ghosts, although I am not one to accept every claim as an actual haunting. Some ghost stories are more realistic than others. I stay away from the monsters and blood-and-gore, such as Halloween. I am skeptical, too, so I remain open-minded). I make sure that the level of realism feels right and does not threaten the integrity of the story. I am imaginative (you have to be to be a fiction writer), but I am very level-headed as far as my thinking goes; I am casual and laid-back, but I am an intellectual.

So what about reality and realism?

Let me share, or elaborate further, on an aspect of myself already mentioned "About Me": my ongoing interest in and research on the Titanic , the ship that came in contact with an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, and sank, taking 1,496 of over 2,200 people to their deaths (yes, this count is accurate, and I have documentation to verify it). I have been into the Titanic since I was a child, and I have conducted research most of that time. Eight movies were made on the event, and not one is 100% based on the reality of what actually happened. Why? Because most details are not confirmed, so no one knows everything for certain; much is merely conjecture. That said, much of what we know or what was even possible for that time has come out short in every single movie.

Why is this?

Well, filmmakers explain that they need to create "drama and suspense". That’s interesting, considering that the actual event was already dramatic in its own right. If this were the case, why not stick to the reality and realism instead of ignoring them to create "drama and suspense"? Does that makes sense?

In my opinion, no.

Filmmakers’ real reason for avoiding reality to create said "drama and suspense," even in light of the facts and culture indigenous to the original event, can be summed up in two words:

Artistic liberty .

Changing aspects of a story, especially in a depiction of an actual account, allows filmmakers to have control over their creation, even to the point of thinking that they are manipulating history in some way. I enjoy all of those movies on the Titanic, but I cannot help but point to all the little and grandiose inaccuracies every time I watch them. I cringe.

Yes, I realize that these works are only movies–"entertainment"–but I am funny that way. Movies designed to reflect a particular event in history should respect that event and time period, right down to the specifics and cultural mores. When certain data are unknown, theorizing must be done based on already known criteria of the event or era.

For example, in the latest Titanic movie, filmmaker James Cameron (whom I respect and greatly admire) revolves the story not around the sinking itself, but around an unlikely  scenario of a romance between a first-class passenger and a steerage passenger.

Well, that could have happened, right?

With what experts and scholars already know about the caste system of the early twentieth century, the answer is an unequivocal No! At that time, the classes did NOT intermingle, at least not romantically; the three caste sections aboard Titanic—first-, second- and third-class—were isolated from one another for that reason, and no one dared cross the line, not that anyone wanted or intended to do so.

If a filmmaker wants to take such liberties, why not create an indistinct setting in a similar era and tell the story s/he wants  (i.e. create a fictional boat or place with fictional people set within an actual time period)? This way, s/he would not be restricted by the reality of the one particular place or event.

Again, in my opinion (and please remember: I am well-versed on Titanic), taking too many liberties can and quite often does offend the event, the time period, those who were involved, and even the intelligence of the audience.

Yes, I support and engage in my own artistic liberty, but not to such an extent that it undermines or distorts reality.

That’s the difference between reality and realism: the former deals with actual facts and specifics related or relating to what was/is; the latter—realism—refers to that sense of truth and possibility within the context of a certain reality.

So when it comes to TV medical dramas, the realism shouldn’t be offensive to those who work in the field (and, believe me, many are/have been offended), but all too often that sense of reality is/has been ignored to accommodate artistic liberty.

This doesn’t need be the case, even in written fiction, for the story to be dramatic and/or suspenseful; let the reality speak for itself, and the audience will still be captivated. This goes for both medical TV shows and Titanic.

In the end, it all depends on the work and what is intended through the work. Respect should always be maintained towards the subject and content, and everyone should realize the difference between fiction and reality.

I am a realistic fiction writer; I balance realism and imagination throughout the entire process, because I hold equal respect and consideration for both. As a result, my stories are balanced as well.


17 Responses to “The Significance of Realism in Fiction”

  1. I agree. In fiction there is a certain premise we have that allows us to stretch reality but at the same time we have to make sure se include enough real facts to make the story believable. For instance, watching someone fall off a 10 story building to get up and walk away is not realism but fantasy and will only work with a super hero in a fantasy book.

    One instance that requires research even in fiction is using real places. A writer on one of the writing lists told about a book she read that took place in her very town, and the author described it inaccurately as being a small town where everyone knows everyone. This is why it’s a good idea to only use real names and locations if you know enough about them to accurately describe them. There will always be that one person who knows the location and can tell you have not done your research.

  2. CW64 said

    >>the author described it inaccurately as being a small town where everyone knows everyone.<<

    Also keep in mind that the phrase "where everyone knows everyone" could be a hyperebole to exemplify the notion of closeness in an intimate location such as a small town and is therefore not intended to be taken literally. Metaphors, similes and analogies in general serve to illustrate ideas rather than fact. In that sense, the phrase could depict a type of truth.

    Still, I get your point.


  3. In this case the town was not a small one according to the person who lived in that town. She said it is a town perhaps the size of Chicago I think is the description she ysed. In this case the author failed to conduct research on the town–of course using a fake town would have worked also which is what I tend to do. Instead of doing that, however, she used a real place but failed to reserch the demographics of the town.

    • CW64 said

      In this case the author failed to conduct research on the town–of course using a fake town would have worked also which is what I tend to do. Instead of doing that, however, she used a real place but failed to reserch the demographics of the town.

      That’s why I stated in the initial post that creating a similar fascimile would be preferable for those who wish to employ artistic liberty and forgo the realism, because this way the writer(s) wouldn’t have to adhere to to the realism of a particular reality. This also applies to situations, like medical dramas and historial accounts.

      As for research, some would undoubtly need to be conducted, but fabricated settings and situations would not be tightly bound and restricted by an already established set of criteria (i.e. rules or ‘terms of reality’, such as that of the Titanic or, say, the life and times of Joan of Arc [Fr. ‘Jeanne D’Arc’). That’s one of the controlling and mitigating factors behind the nature of research. When one is already familiar with a certain subject about which to write, that person need not conduct research or as much of it, and even the type of research will also be affected. You know that from freelancing).


  4. Ur posting, “The Significance of Realism in Fiction Creatiwriter64’s Blog” was indeed worthy of commenting down here in the comment section! Merely needed to state you really did a terrific job. Thanks a lot ,Elaine

    • CW64 said

      Thank you, Elaine,

      The topic of this particular post is a favorite of mine and a prevalently debated one. That’s why I felt the need to chime in with my own thoughts. I am glad you found it useful.

      Please keep checking back for further posts on this and related topics. As you know, such discussions are non-exhaustive.


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      Sorry about the browser issue. That’s not on my end. Perhaps it could be3 the server as well. You can download Firefox. That browser works extremely well with both WP and Blogger, and it is free.

      Good luck.


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