(Before I start this post, I’d just like to say that WordPress is driving me nuts this week. It’s taken me three tries to log in every single day. Annoying!!)
So, this is something I think about often. How realistic does a book really need to be?
I can’t remember the book or who was reviewing it (useful, I know), but I remember reading a review where the reviewer really enjoyed a book and later came back and amended the review because other reviews of the book had criticized its authenticity.
And, sure, if you’re reading a book set in 5th century Spain and you’re a Spanish history enthusiast, it’d probably drive you absolutely batty to read a book that isn’t true to that time period. But if you’re someone like me who just wants a good story, I doubt you’ll even notice that the book isn’t realistic. (Unless, of course, the main character pulls up in front of the castle in a Rolls Royce or something.)
This happens in TV shows all the time. My friends who live in DC were talking about a scene from a show where someone is buying coffee right in front of the White House. Turns out, not so realistic. But who cares? Does it make the TV episode less enjoyable if you know that the person couldn’t have bought a coffee with that view in the background?
(If so…Hint: It’s make-believe. None of it is real. Even if it’s based on a real city. Even if some of the characters are modeled on real people who once existed, it’s still not real. It’s all made up.)
I respect those authors who really know their subject matter and incorporate those details into their stories. (As long as they do it without shoving it down my throat.) I just don’t think I have that much of a problem with the ones who don’t get every single last detail right. (And, quite frankly, maybe it’s because I don’t know when they get it wrong.)
Which leads me to the second half of what I think about when I think about this issue. Which is that there are a lot of misconceptions out there. Tons of people think they know about things and have no clue. Take up any sort of well-known but not often pursued hobby and you’ll soon understand how very different the popular view is from reality.
(I’ve heard lots of discussion about how unrealistic the skydiving scenes in Point Break were. But, guess what? People loved those scenes and the movie brought a lot of folks to the sport. Realistic scenes wouldn’t have been near as entertaining. And that’s what a movie is for, right? To entertain. It wasn’t a documentary.)
So, then, who do you write for? Do you write for the masses who don’t actually know how things work or do you write for the small group of people who do know? Do you have 10,000 people (we could all be so lucky to be that widely read) think you’re an idiot when you’re not? Or do you have 100 people know you’re an idiot, but 10,000 think you got it right?
I don’t know. I think if I knew for a certainty that something worked one way that I’d have to write it that way. But, I wouldn’t tear my hair out if I had a character use a bronze sword two hundred years before bronze was discovered. Especially not in a world I made up that was just loosely modeled on some prior time period.
Maybe that cavalier attitude will doom me to never being a published author. (I suspect my writing ability will doom me first, but you never know…) I’ll take that risk, though.
This is also less of an issue with speculative fiction (at least the type I write). Part of the beauty of making up the world I write in is that I can make up the rules. (I won’t digress into how that’s not quite true – that’s a whole other post. But I will acknowledge it.)
To me, it’s far more important that character reactions are authentic and that cause and effect line up. I could read the most well-researched, technically correct book and hate it if the characters were flat or if I just couldn’t believe the sequence of events.
To me, realistic writing – getting all those little details correct – is like putting the decorations on the cake. (It’s not even the icing. It’s the stuff you put on top of the icing that makes it all look pretty.) I want the cake to taste good first and foremost. If you can’t bake a good-tasting cake, I don’t care how good you are at the decorations. Of course, if you can do both, you’re a rock star.
(And with that bad analogy…I swear, my day job just kills my writing. It’s like some whack-a-mole game being played by a five-year old sadistic bully. Creative thought? Whap! Coherent sentence? Whap! Cool idea? Whap! Whap! Whap!)