Thursday, July 24, 2014

Realism Versus Believability

I wish I could recall who it was, and if someone who reads this knows the answer, please tell me and I will gladly give credit. But a while back someone mentioned the issue of making a world seem real to a reader when so many people have unrealistic ideas about things. It's a subject well worth spending time on, in my opinion. Hollywood and tv are prime culprits in promoting this state of affairs, but they are not solely to blame.

The article I read used caves as an example. Someone who is a spelunker might be thrown out of a story when they encounter an unrealistic description of a cave, as for example describing a volcanic type of interior when the hero is actually going into a limestone cavern. Things like that.

But we have been conditioned to think of certain things in certain ways, and sometimes when you put them realistically, it throws people out of the story worse than if you just went along with the erroneous assumptions that the mainstream clings to. Swords for example.

Nothing on earth is any farther from realistic than the depiction of swordplay as it is presented in movies, on tv, and on stage. It bears very nearly no resemblance at all to actually using a sword. All you have to do is watch an Olympic fencing match, which itself is as fake as a three dollar bill in terms of actual combat, to see that dramatic representations of swordplay are a joke. Scenes where two men are banging huge two-handed longswords against each other like they were fencing foils? One man standing off three attackers, out in an open field with no cover anywhere around? Right.

Even one man holding off a group on a narrow stairway is iffy, if one of the group has a crossbow and a clear shot at his leg. But you can put a scene like that in a story and a lot of people will swallow it without bothering to think it through, because they are so used to seeing things like that.

So you have to meet people's expectations. I got a review recently where someone thought the dialogue in my fantasy book sounded too modern, and it grated on their ear. The setting is  not Earth, it is another human world, in a kingdom with a technological level approximately equal to that of late Middle Ages/early Renaissance Europe. Not exactly, but close.

The people don't speak English, but rather than do what some writers have done and try to invent an entirely new language, I simply offered their speech in modern colloquial American. The reader was subconsciously expecting, in that setting, to hear archaic speech patterns.  Even though it wasn't Earth and they weren't speaking English, reading the dialogue with words like 'guy' instead of 'fellow' or 'sirrah' annoyed them.

It isn't a matter of right or wrong. It's a matter of effective story telling and audience appeal. The small details like that make a difference to people. And it's not the job of the reader to adapt to the writer's story. It's the story teller's job to reach out and snatch the reader so tightly that they can't escape.
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