Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD! (And it got a bit long—but I find this stuff really interesting and challenging as a wannabe writer)
“Realism” is a funny concept in fiction. As a genre/setting label, it refers to works set in what we perceive as our world without imaginative or non-factual alterations. Of course, there are many fabrications and additions made to even the most realistic of works, whether it’s an invented town, a convenient outcome that may not happen that way in reality, or simply the presence of human beings who have never existed and never will. All of this is imagination—but it’s within the bounds of what’s possible in our current/past reality (thus kicking sci-fi out).
However, “realism” can also refer to another set of qualifiers in fiction—that the outcome of events and the behavior of the characters fits with what we would expect in similar circumstances in our world, even if they’re dragons and vampires. This is why a scene where the hero is shot thirty times but can still run around for another half an hour while fighting off aliens is called “unrealistic”—but not because of the aliens.
What we consider to be “realistic” is not always based on fact, merely upon a sense of socially agreed-upon “truth.” For example, many people will be quick to point out that people of color in a historical setting is not “realistic,” despite the fact that people of color were not somehow “invented” in the last few hundred years and have existed throughout the world and in a multitude of settings and social roles for all of human history. And that’s not even addressing the ridiculousness of applying the rigors of this completely false “realism” to a fantasy setting, but anyway…
Reality proves again and again that it is not always so predictable. People survive incredible wounds and circumstances; relationships we would never expect to work end up lasting forever (or vice versa); people are hardly ever as consistent in their behaviors as we expect characters to be. However, despite these facts, the vast majority of readers will expect (or at least desire) a certain amount of realism.
But what that means in modern fictional works is starting to… change. Not necessarily altogether, or in every work, but in ways that force writers to make a choice—how much “realism” do you want or need?
Every story consists of a multitude of choices, as every event must have an outcome that the writer has to design. It can be as seemingly simple as whether or not this character will accept that character’s marriage proposal, to as complex as whether or not this plan to save the world will work. And the “predictability” of a story depends upon whether or not the reader can guess what the outcome will be.
Stories can be predictable for a number of reasons, and it’s not always an inherently bad thing. The romance genre, for example, is built upon the predictable fact that the couple will end up together and happy at the end of the story—and it’s what readers want. They accept that predictability (and the occasional unrealistic events leading to it) for the pleasure and comfort that it provides, often as an antidote to the disappointment and randomness of real life. I’ll come back to this point later.
They can also be predictable because the writer lays on the foreshadowing too thick, or they’re playing in a crowded genre, or they’ve chosen story events that have been used so many times before that their outcomes are expected. There’s also the fact that certain conventions of storytelling limit the options for possible outcomes.
And this is where realism comes in.
It’s a storytelling convention that the protagonist will survive to the end of the story. Sometimes, depending on genre and the specific story itself, the protagonist will die at the end; but usually only in the case where their death means something and completes the story. That’s because the reader is offered a contract at the beginning, that this story will have a beginning, middle, and end. And, though this can mean many different things and depends on the reader, that it will be a satisfying and/or meaningful ending.
Occasionally, a writer will challenge this convention. For example, in the film No Country for Old Men, the “hero” Llewelyn dies somewhat randomly (off-screen) well before the end of the movie; the story just kind of rambles on into anticlimax, the bad guy disappearing and the last “hero” talking about his dreams. Now, I’m not arguing that this story lacks merit or meaning, and obviously it’s deemed successful because it won the Oscar for Best Picture. But for me, it felt incredibly anticlimactic and sort of pointless, and I didn’t enjoy it. That is entirely my subjective opinion, and certainly not a popular one, but to me the violation of story convention left it feeling unfinished. The meaning achieved through this unfinished feeling is no doubt the point of that choice, and so that’s what the writer presumably wanted.
Storytelling conventions exist because of the expectations of a narrative (beginning, middle, end; a sense of completion; conflict building to resolution). Violating those expectations is a perfectly viable choice for a writer, usually made to achieve a theme or meaning, or simply to explore the limitations and nature of those expectations themselves.
There’s another reason to violate expectations—“realism.”
In this case, it’s the nature of that realism which is subjective. Who can say that it’s more realistic for a character to die in these circumstances than to live? Certainly, when the obstacles are raised to an extreme point (such as a room full of trained killers shooting a deluge of bullets in the hero’s direction), it increases the “odds” (calculated in the reader’s mind by their perceptions of reality) that a certain outcome will occur. When that outcome does not occur, usually because the writer wants or needs that character to live, it is deemed unrealistic—but it’s just a story, and it carries on.
And we tend to enjoy that lack of realism in most circumstances. The character’s heroism is exaggerated by the extremity of the odds they overcome—this is even more the case when we find their survival realistic, such as surviving a room of assassins not by magic bullet repellant but by outsmarting them with a grenade or something. We want the character to make it to the airport just in time; we want them to defuse the bomb before it goes off; we want them to make it out alive.
Sometimes they don’t, and it’s sad, and that’s what the story is going for and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the violation of what we want that makes it sad—if we didn’t want it in the first place, then the emotion that the writer achieves becomes moot.
The violation of what we want also plays into suspense, and I took all this time to get at what I really wanted to write about. Suspense or tension is the feeling of desiring a certain outcome, being uncertain if or how it will occur, and waiting for the result. When the stakes of the outcome are raised, the desire for it is also heightened, and our tension in waiting for and wondering about the outcome create that suspenseful feeling that readers love (more on this in a moment).
It’s this confluence of factors that create various responses in the reader. What outcome do we want? How difficult is that outcome to achieve? And what do we predict will happen? The more difficult the outcome, the more cathartic joy we’ll feel upon ‘achieving’ it. The more unpredictable an outcome, the more suspense is generated, because we have to wait and see.
And that desire for unpredictability has led to an increase in “realism.” When we don’t know whether a character will live or die, our suspense is greatly exacerbated.
In many stories, the characters are placed in a situation where their survival is in question, but storytelling conventions lead us to predict that the character will either survive or die in a meaningful way. Thus, the main source of suspense is usually a secondary factor—will the villain be defeated? Or the friend rescued? That’s what provides the satisfying ending, even if the hero dies along the way.
But in a story where conventions are twisted, challenged, or ignored, we don’t know if the hero will survive, even just long enough to complete their story. The primary example, of course, is Game of Thrones, where major characters can die at any moment, without any sense of completing their narrative. This is achieved by a multi-strand narrative which keeps us from knowing who the protagonist is, and thus from predicting exactly who will live or who will die.
Because we can’t predict what is most likely to happen, our suspense and tension are extreme—I kept my face covered for most of the fight between Oberyn and the Mountain, because I wasn’t sure what would happen but I feared the worst. I was right, damn it, and it made me incredibly sad and upset. I knew what I wanted to happen, I truly wasn’t sure if I would get it, and it made the waiting for it much more tense and uncertain.
And my question is, the point of this whole long ramble: is that a good thing?
More and more shows and stories are killing off major characters seemingly at random, and celebrating the agony of the viewers who are denied what they want (which for the most part is happiness/survival for the characters they like, except of course those viewers who are sadistic and violent to all). Sybil’s death on Downton Abbey affected me more than any death in any other work, because she was my favorite and a death in an ongoing series means I wouldn’t see her again.
That depth of emotion and connection, as well as the effect of suspense in the moments leading up to an unexpected death or outcome (could be less violent, such as being late to the airport, etc.), might be seen as a good thing. Better storytelling, more realistic, and a stronger emotional response from readers. But it also makes me sad and upset and unhappy—is that better than the (often shallow, yes) joy I feel when a character is triumphant?
Ultimately, we need all kinds of stories. Sad stories, happy stories, grim stories, shallow stories, and everything in between. Because we are all different sorts of readers/viewers, and because a single unified type of experience would make for boring entertainment.
But as more shows, movies, and books become more “realistic” in their willingness to defy the safe and predictable storytelling conventions in order to gain suspense, the audience’s expectations begin to change. Storytelling conventions themselves begin to change. Now, an epic series concluding with no deaths among the major characters is seen as “unrealistic”—and because of that, unsatisfying.
Is there truly something worse in a story that is happy? Or in a story that is predictable? Or even unrealistic? Reading for “escape” is sniffed at and criticized as a ridiculous and childish endeavor, while “real” literature breaks our hearts and depicts “reality” in all its harsh, unfeeling lack-of-glory. But isn’t there room for entertainment that lightens our day and makes us smile alongside that which forces us to question our humanity and wrenches our emotions—not just in the marketplace but also in critical acclaim?
Why is “realism” (and bleakness, and pain) treated as inherently better?
I do agree that it creates more exquisite suspense, and it can only do that if we legitimately believe that the writer would choose the less conventional choice. And I agree that sometimes writers pile up the obstacles so high that the hero’s survival is laughably ridiculous, and even while accepting a lack of realism, it can sometimes be too unrealistic.
But imagine this: halfway through the story, the hero is trapped in a room full of a hundred trained assassins. They open fire, and… he dies. The rest of the story ambles on as his distraught allies mourn, and try to defeat the villain, who ultimately wins by blowing them all up when they don’t defuse the bomb in time (because only the hero would have known how). The bleak nature of reality, in which villains win and heroes die, is played out in all of its bloody, painful “truth.” The credits roll, or the cover closes, and there we sit.
Are we happy?
And more importantly (because being happy is not the only duty of entertainment, absolutely, nor preferred by all readers)—
Is that always, inherently, unquestionably… better?