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Realism vs. fantasy in fiction

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Nov. 9th, 2011 | 11:06 pm
mood: pensivepensive

A random thought that occurred to me a few weeks ago — there seems to be an "Uncanny Valley" kind of effect[1] when you look at realism (or, more precisely, the lack thereof) in fiction. Broadly, I think that one can split fiction into four categories, from realistic to fantastic[2]:

  1. Realistic.
  2. Stretching realism; fiction that is not strictly realistic, but where the lack of realism isn't blatant. "Realistic fantasies" fall into this category.
  3. Breaking realism.
  4. Shattering realism. "Fantastic (as opposed to realistic) fantasies" fall into this category.

The "Uncanny Valley" occurs in the third category. In both the third and the fourth, the lack of realism is by definition blatant rather than subtle; the difference, as I see it, is that the fourth category ceases to make any claims about being realistic. That doesn't mean that aspects of actual reality and the real world can't figure in this kind of fiction (quite the opposite, this can actually be part of the appeal; see e.g. Harry Potter), but all in all, it's obviously and definitely (and intentionally) fantastic.

I've found that this "Uncanny Valley" can really take the fun out of a piece of fiction if it's not addressed properly, breaking immersion and making the piece of fiction contrived. I try to take care of it myself when writing fiction of any kind (pretty rare to begin with); I either make it (semi-)realistic or entirely fantastic, or alternatively provide a good explanation of how and why it actually works and why the story does not simply fail to present an internally consistent[3] world.

The latter is a possible way to avoid this "Uncanny Valley", BTW: you have to provide appropriate explanations for the lack of realism, and in fact, these explanations may then well turn out to be the center of the story (essentially turning the entire piece into one big example of lampshading). To give an example, consider a story about a young boy (say, in fourth grade) who excels at the long jump. If he's able to do, I don't know, 12 feet or so, that's probably realistic. If he's able to do 16 feet, that's stretching realism, but it's not entirely inconceivable. If he's able to do 25 feet, that IS unrealistic and will require an explanation. If he completely turns the concept of the long jump on its head due to his ability to fly, that's entirely fantastic (and an ability to fly may not require an explanation the same way that being able to jump 25 feet would[4]).

I think the above also neatly explains why sometimes, when you read a piece of fiction and get annoyed by it because it's unrealistic, it can actually become fun again if it becomes even MORE unrealistic: once you move past the "Uncanny Valley", the need for realism goes away, and it's easier to accept an unrealistic piece as simply fantastic.

  1. Actually, Uncanny Valley kinds of effects are surprisingly common in a very general context, but that's beyond the scope of this post.
  2. One can also draw the lines differently; this isn't necessarily the only valid scheme.
  3. Internal consistency is always important for a good story, of course, as Tolkien pointed out.
  4. The story could well revolve around this decidedly unusual ability and attempt to figure out why it exists etc., but it wouldn't have to: it could still be a good story without it.

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Comments {4}

moonhare

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from: bunny_plush
date: Nov. 10th, 2011 08:59 am (UTC)
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Interesting :o) I refer to this effect in cartoons simply as Cartoon Physics. Animals can talk and drive cars, but they still have to adhere to physical realities unless the aberration is part of their character or completes a gag.

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Schneelocke

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from: schnee
date: Nov. 10th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, but it's not limited to cartoons — or physics.

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Schneelocke

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from: schnee
date: Nov. 10th, 2011 08:28 pm (UTC)
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Mmm, yes, you're right — access to, or even the very existence of, that kind of power would have sociopolitical ramifications that would have to be addressed one way or another in the setting. Otherwise, it's pretty much a textbook example of a lack of internal consistency.

I should probably note that I haven't read any of the Harry Potter novels, BTW. :) I was only using them as an example of how when you have a fantastic novel, it doesn't have to be its own closed world, as e.g. in the Lord of the Rings; it can be integrated with our own world, too.

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Schneelocke

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from: schnee
date: Nov. 11th, 2011 11:17 pm (UTC)
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I hope you didn't read them just for the above comment! ;) (If you did, you sure are a fast reader, though. :))

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