When Realism Attempts Backfire

wrong level of realism

Like robots, if something’s close to real but off, it’s more disturbing than imagery that doesn’t try to be that close (like animation).

We want our stories to feel real. We try to research enough to get the big details right, and sometimes, we try go further. We try to salt the entire story with traditions and jargon and research that makes it seem even more real. And there’s nothing wrong with that – except when we’re writing about something we know nothing about. When we try to write about a skill set, place, or culture that we know very little about, detailed realism attempts backfire. Big time.

Writing about Skill Sets You Know Nothing About

Take hacking for example. It’s pretty common to have an elite hacker as a character in a mystery or action story. Someone with the skill set to break through stuff with high levels of security (like banks or governments). It’s a seriously popular trope for authors and screenwriters to use. But how much does the average writer really know about hacking?

Not a lot.

As a matter of fact, I’d hazard to guess that the majority of authors don’t know any more about hacking than they’ve learned from your basic action film. Which is seriously not a lot. And it’s probably not that realistic. Eddie Izzard’s computer encore puts it better than I could:

“Breaking into the Pentagon computer… Double-click on ‘Yes.’ Oh, password protected. 20 billion possible chances… uh, ‘Jeff.'”

Yeah. That’s about the impression most of us have of elite hacking.

Maybe, it’s just me, but I feel like if everything you’ve learned about a skill came from a fiction movie, then you probably shouldn’t try to write extreme realism about that subject. If you want to try, you’re welcome to. Just don’t expect it to be easy. That’s an immerse-yourself-in-the-research type of challenge because you almost have to learn to code before the jargon makes sense to you (in fact, you may actually have to learn to code before the jargon begins to make sense to you).

Personally, the only way I’d be willing to chance that level of realism is if I had an actual hacker (or more than 1) to talk to and check with to make sure that I was being accurate. Talking to a person who knows and can explain it to you is the most efficient research for that level of realism after doing it yourself (IMHO).

Writing about Places You’ve Never Been

That sounds pretty hard to do from the get-go. That is, IF all the nitty gritty details of the place are vital to your plot. If the location plays a very small role in the story, doesn’t need such minute details, or plays more of a passing role (you only need a few vital details but not much more), then it’s not an insurmountable task (actually, it’s pretty normal).

Of course, if the location isn’t that important, then why not move it? (Mostly being a smart aleck)

No, I don’t want to say that you can only write stories set in places you’ve been. That’s like saying that you can only write about things you’ve experienced personally (and you all know how I feel about that – if not, click the link).

My argument is that if you don’t know about a place well enough to know what’s realistic for that place, and you don’t want to research it deeply enough to have 100% (at least 98%) accurate details, then go for believable realism. Go for the level of realism used in most movies and books. Don’t try to make it super realistic.

Or, if the story really demands the extra realism, get off your butt and do the needed research/talk to someone who knows/hire someone to research for you.

Writing about a Culture You Don’t Know Well

Ok, there’s not much point in going into detail with this. You already got the recurring theme of either do the research or don’t go for gritty research. There’s not a lot to add with this topic (or any other area of setting that might require research). Except, oh, yeah, there is one thing:

Doing this one wrong can make people think you’re a bigot.

It’s a delicate balance. If you go for serious realism, and you’re wrong in the wrong way, it can very easily be taken as prejudice. Yes, a lot of things can be taken as prejudice, especially nowadays when we are so politically correct, and people are ready and eager to point out offenses online. Even gritty realism that is accurate can cause an outcry.

But if you don’t bother to do the research, you don’t have it to back you up. “I was too lazy to research” isn’t much of a defense.

Write the Level of Realism You’re Willing to Work for

That’s the final message.

Few people experience more than 1, maybe 2 careers and a handful of places. And even vacationing doesn’t give someone the same depth of knowledge as living somewhere. The same for visiting a job or researching it instead of actually working it.

You can’t know everything, and you don’t have to.

I know some crowds really push realism – let’s face it, not all types of writing get the same amount of respect. But trying to write at a level of realism beyond what you know (by experience, research, or both) isn’t going to impress anyone. Especially not the people who tout realism.

That’s when realism attempts backfire. And when that happens, nobody likes the result. Not even the author (especially not the author).

I’d rather write something people like – something I like. Wouldn’t you?



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