Thoughtful Thursday: Get real

Well, I set off a bit of a firestorm last week, didn’t I?

I want to follow up on a point that came up in the discussion.

Kat said:

Ruth, I don’t like rape scenes, either, but it’s a fact of life just like murder, war, animal cruelty, and child abuse. If we wiped it out of our books, they’d be more pleasant, but they wouldn’t be real. Why not wipe out all the other distasteful stuff, too, then?

And then Greg responded:

I agree with Kat’s point about the medieval settings. To me, there are a lot of authors that just can’t make me buy it when they make women being warriors too common. I mean, in many fantasy stories it just doesn’t jive with the world the story is in. Heck for that matter look at the ratio in our world for women cops or combat soldiers to men. And we live in a society that has been motivated to be more accepting of that. Most fantasy worlds don’t have that motivation.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSo, I just have a question: What is the benefit of realism as a rating mechanism for fantasy? Isn’t the point of fantasy that you can do things that aren’t real? If the society is internally consistent, why does it matter if it doesn’t look like our history? There are elves and trolls running around and you are concerned about realism as defined by historical earth standards?

Dear readers, what do you think? Do you care about realism when it comes to fantasy? Or are you looking for internal consistency? Or is it something else entirely? Let me know what you think and we’ll enter you into a drawing for the book of your choice from our stacks!

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. Internal consistency all the way. If you tell me on page 1 that people can fly, then I’ll accept it when flying gets the protagonist out of a jam in the climax. But if there’s never been any hint that this is possible, it’s a deus ex machina.

    Or you can tell me that in your world the sexes have always been equal, and I’m fine with that. But if the story doesn’t bear that out–say, men still run everything and have harems of bimbos–then either the society is hypocritical (if the author did it on purpose) or else it’s not well-thought-out.

  2. Internal consistency. Realism is often an important factor for science fiction (although not everyone would agree…see John Scalzi’s recent post on science fantasy in movies), but not as much with fantasy. Was it Rod Serling who said that science fiction makes the implausible possible while fantasy makes the impossible possible?

  3. I don’t think it’s a matter of consistency, it’s a matter of how you perceive or define a specific ideas in comparison to the real world. If there’s no connection, your mind is going to be able to cope with the difference.

    For example, if in this fantasy world, all women are 250 lbs, muscled warriors, with beards (an extreme example, but bear with me) then it’s going to create cognitive dissonance in my mind. I’m simply going to reject the idea that this is indeed a woman, even if it’s 100% consistent and repeated a thousand times throughout the book. Sorry, not a woman (according to how my mind’s idea of women).

    The same can go for men, children, or any fantasy concept. An author can’t stray too far from the properties that define a particular idea.

  4. Since rape, murder, war, animal cruelty, and child abuse are nasty things present in most (if not all) societies we’ve ever heard of, any society that doesn’t have them doesn’t feel like it could be a real society. I’m not going to believe in it.

  5. True, Kat. The only caveat is that we all have our hot buttons and things we don’t want to read, and we know they go on behind the scenes but don’t want them front and center. Animal cruelty, for example, is one of mine. “Sure, massacre the whole village, BUT SOMEONE SAVE THE DOOOGGGG!!!” Lol. I know it goes on, I know it goes on in real life and in any fictional universe I read, but I sure hate actually reading about it!

  6. So, what about LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Kat? (That’s the one where they are genderless most of the time, right?) A society like that would be so fundamentally different that would you have a problem without sex-based violence? Something fantastical – not human – doesn’t have to have human based behaviors in it, does it?

  7. If it is consistent with the world (genderless), then gender-based crimes aren’t expected. But if there are races, genders, and other societal differences that are similar to our world, then we’d expect similar sorts of conflicts to occur.

  8. True. It’s like generalizing from qualitative research. :D

  9. I want internal consistency, but that is going to mean realism too if (as in most cases) the main characters in the story are human beings. There are ways that people behave regardless of whether they live in a world of nuclear missiles or spells. That could include rape, murder, racial intolerance, etc, and in a story where those things couldn’t happen I’m going to find it hard to suspend disbelief. That doesn’t mean they actually have to happen on stage, but you can be sure that war and injustice and the possibility of rape and murder are in the background of even a Jane Austen novel.

    A feudal medieval-style fantasy work that soft soaps such a world as some kind of bucolic paradise of noble lords and willing serfs, rather than a taut-to-breaking-point brew of privilege, hypocrisy and injustice, not only isn’t very credible, it also seems to me like a wasted opportunity. Why do we tell stories if not to work through the things that concern us and that are too terrible to face up to honestly in everyday life? Fantasy should be the bravest genre of fiction, not (as it too often is) the most timid.

  10. I don’t read fantasy for realism, I read it for an escape from reality. As much as a book without rape, animal cruelty, or child abuse seems unrealistic, I’m ok with that. I can pick up a newspaper and read about such things.

    What I’m looking for in fantasy is to be transported to a place that doesn’t exist. A place where imagination trumps realism. A place where people are heroic. A place I could see myself immersed in, instead of living next door to a guy that beats his girlfriend and starves his dog, or a closet pedophile.

    Yeah, I’m naive, but hey, that’s just how I roll…


  11. I don’t like to read those things, either, but I don’t think it’s a reason to say a book is bad (which is what came up in our discussion last week).

  12. I think it really boils down to if the author can sell what’s happening in the story as believable. Often time that takes realism, but not always.
    Like for example, since women warriors have been brought-up already, I’m currently reading The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, and his world is more or less comparable to the historical dark ages, and there is a female character called Wonderful, she’s a Named Man -warrior of elite status. She’s a soldier by profession and goes off to fight for long periods of time while her husband stays home to tend the farm. There’s an awful lot of authors who write similar female characters, but “I’m like yeah, whatever.” But when Abercrombie does it, I don’t even bat an eye. Cause his writing is real as in believable.
    I have my things I don’t want to read about it fantasy too, like I don’t want it to get too soap opera-y, which in its way is realistic. And ever since I had my own kids, I have a real hard time stomaching out-right detailed violence, especially sexual toward young children. That’s downright too real for me.

  13. Last week I wasn’t trying to say that the inclusion of rape made the book bad, I meant it to say that rape as a major plot point demonstrates a masculine ethos.

  14. I lean towards internal consistency, though I think authors do need to address how their changes separate their world from ours –the inclusion of women above being an example. That doesn’t really bother me, but I do prefer it when something is actually different for their inclusion, or at least provide a reason. It doesn’t have to be that complex of one. In Gardens of the Moon, for example, women are in the army because the empire is recruiting everyone. That works for me.

    As for the darker stuff (yeah, I’m going to lump it all under ‘stuff’), it depends on my frame of mind. I’m currently in agreement with Brian and going through more of a classic ‘high adventure’ phase.

    I don’t think the darker stuff makes a book bad. I’m certain I’ll be back to the grimmer, grittier, realistic fantasy soon–I go through this cycle a couple times a year.

  15. I’d say we’re doing ourselves a disservice by using the word realism. “Realism” in fantasy sort of loses its usual meaning as fantasy by definition is not realistic. I’m not sure therefore you can have “realism” in the sense of “being like our world”. Maybe “mimetic” is a better word in the sense of imitating our world. “Realism” to me in fantasy would mean humans behave like humans (and thus have violence and rape and envy etc.) and races presented as having those qualities show them consistently. I don’t need mimeticism–I’m happy to have flying baby grendels and so on. But I do want realism (though I’m just as happy to inhabit-as a reader–a setting with people who are presented as not having those human qualities).

    Do I need rape, blood etc. shown? No. I neither require it nor recoil (as a reader) from it–I like lots of different styles. I don’t like when it’s either used for shock value alone or is emotionally absent

    And not to open up that can again, but I don’t accept that portrayal of rape makes the book “male” or demonstrates a “male” ethos, any more than as was implied in that original post, a multiple-pov does: it’s a stylistic choice, not a gender statement. Or that it makes it male anymore than the presence of trees do: it’s part of the human world unless you’ve already in your book presented these humans as inhuman.

  16. Internal consistency for me. Something can be real and internal consistent, or like nothing on our world and internally consistent, but as soon as it’s inconsistent it annoys me.

    For example, I really loved the “Lord of the Rings” movies, but struggled with parts of the battle of Helm’s Deep. We had already established that Eowyn had been trained in the sword, and she makes a statement to Aragorn which suggests that it’s not entirely unusual for women to be trained to protect themselves (she’s based on the concept of a shieldmaiden). And so there’s a siege, and the need for people to fight is so overwhelming that they’re conscripting kids who can barely lift weapons, but not one single woman is shown doing anything but cowering in the bowels of the city, whimpering or looking worried. [If there were some out helping in the battle, I missed them.]

    Now, even in “the real world”, in a situation where there’s a desperate need for more bodies surely _some_ women would be out at least fetching and carrying spare arrows. Even if you decided to protect high-caste valuable women like Eowyn, were there no old hags to boil pitch and pour it on the enemy? To bind wounds?

    The inconsistency of desperately needing more hands on deck, but not using any burdened with ‘girl bits’, really bugged me.

  17. I do not understand the logic behind questioning the practice of the abundance of female warriors in fantasy literature. Aren’t we supposed to suspend disbelief when if comes to fantasy worlds? I mean that’s the whole point of the genre, isn’t it? ‘Fantasy’ If realism is wanted in our reading, then perhaps fantasy is not the genre we should choose. For me, the internal consistency…the world building…is key. Throw in as many female warriors as you want…I won’t find it hard to believe!

  18. @true book addict- I really have no problem with that as long as it jives with the story. But a lot of times elements like that just come across as being done for the pure sake of it. Almost like the author, probably a male, is thinking, Hmmm, I need some strong female characters in this book…hmmm.. instead of all the dudes being warriors, I’ll make some women warriors,yeah that will bring in the female readers. It’s just so easy to see through that in a story, I think anyway. Kinda like having the token chic…and this isn’t necessarily just about gender, the same thing could be done for racial ethnicity sexuality, whatever. Sometimes it seems like something gets thrown into a story for some ulterior motive but just doesn’t fit.

  19. What gets my goat isn’t so much the presence of rape, murder, war, etc. It’s when characters, as all too often happens, have such trauma happen to them, and then just ‘move on’. That annoys me. Because I’ve seen first hand what people who are traumatized go through, and it ain’t pretty, no matter your strength of character. In fact, something like rape for example is excellent at ripping just such strength to shreds. Nobody escapes it unscathed. Ever.

    If a story has traumatic elements but fails to have people react realistically to them, it jars my suspension of disbelief. If it doesn’t have these elements, I don’t have a problem – I don’t need traumatic events to be front and centre in every story I read, fantasy is no different.

    As a small side note re. prosecution of rape in Medieval times, the city nearest where I grew up was renowned for its strict courts then. “Riber Ret”, The Courts of Ribe, had as punishment for a rapist “a woman’s death”: Castration followed by being left to bleed to death in public. Not exactly a culture where rape was allowed to run rampant, I should say!

    There’s a lot more to say about the common misunderstandings of fantasy authors about the Middle Ages, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

  20. Me, I like realism in my fantasy, even though those two things together may sound antithetical. I like realism within the world that the author’s setting up. Cultural realism, linguistic realism, psychological realism. If (getting back to the issue of women in fantasy…) the author sets up a world in which women are perceived by others, and thus often by themselves, as delicate little flowers, sure, there are going to be some women who’ll come along and buck the trend. It happens. It’s happened time and again in our own history. But when the author has that set-up and then creates a fierce warrior women and everybody accepts said warrior women without much trouble..? No. It doesn’t tend to work that way. PEOPLE don’t tend to work that way. We’re creatures of habit that have a nasty tendancy to rebel against anything that we find odd or abnormal.

    Similarly, if a world is set up in which rain has never fallen, and suddenly there’s a rainstorm out of nowhere, little children will likely not be shrieking with delight and jumping in puddles. They’re more likely to shriek with fear and hide behind the adults who are talking about how the sky is falling.

    Or a world in which magic can do anything without consequences to the world of the caster, and is as common as breathing, and yet people still stare in awe and wonder whenever somebody does the magical equivalent of flicking a light switch.

    I think in cases like the above, at least, what the author is trying to do is to go over the top in terms of world-building to make something very fantastical, the epitome of fantasy, and yet still appeal to the fact that the average reader doesn’t have magical lightswitches available to them. They’re writing both in their world and out. Which is fine, except that it sounds sloppy and ill thought out. And such books rarely tend to make a good impression on people.

    Suspension of disbelief is one thing. To get into a fantasy novel, we often have to put our own world behind us and jump into an entirely new one. But that new world still has its own rules and laws, of science and culture and all sorts, and I can only suspend my disbelief so much when the creator of said world throws something in that goes counter to something else that they clearly established.

  21. A realism kinda pet-peeve I have is dialog that seems so fake. I’ve read too many books where the dialog reads like a bad script in a cheap movie or a bad soap opera; characters just flat-out saying things that no one would be sayin real life, regardless of the language.
    At the very least, the reader shouldn’t notice the dialog at all, but when its done really well, it can greatly enrich the whole experiance.

  22. Nancy Ann Gazo /

    This is an “It depends…” issue for me. If what I am reading is URBAN fantasy, I’ve come to expect some element of realism. Or reference to an aspect grounded in reality. From there, the fantasy is built, and can take flight in any direction. (Kind of like sci-fi.) But – sometimes, the appeal of a book IS just how “fantastical” and unlike real life it actually is.

    I must agree that internal consistency is key – however you look at it. The degree of saccharine or noir can vary, and be read according to personal taste – but when an author messes with the physics of a story’s world, there’d better be a very logical explanation.

    BTW – loved the tidbit Gert related regarding the punishment for rape! Cruel and unusual crimes deserve cruel and unusual punishment.

  23. The Fantasizer /

    I feel its just the way we’re made, a few or no female warriors are just what we like and want, too many women warriors would spoil a book and its just the way it is, sorry people but be it reality or fantasy I like my women to have traits and characteristics that are particular to women and somehow in my mind (and I am sure that’s the case with many others) the words women and warriors just doesnt go together.
    Sometimes a woman warrior may be intriguing but if there are too many of them then its just weird.

  24. SandyG265 /

    I want internal consistency in fantasy. I expect that the rules will be different from the real world in a fantasy book but I find it very annoying if the rules change from one chapter to the next.

  25. Wes — If you live in the U.S., you win a book from our stacks! Please contact me (Kat) with your choice.
    Contact page:

    If you don’t live in the US, let me know so I can pick someone else. Thanks!

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