As a writer of fantasy novels, I think that Cool > Real much of the time. I came to this conclusion fairly early writing the Ballad. Specifically, I was writing my first swordfighting scene with Graham and Captain Ferdinand. I had it in my head that I would write ‘realistic’ sword fights. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about rapiers, sabers, or how to handle them, but that didn’t deter me. I’d do research! I’d learn what I needed to know, watch videos of expert fencers, read up on technique… I would equip myself with just enough knowledge to describe what was happening really, really well and still have it qualify as Realistic.
Cheerful and smug, I started to investigate. I read a few articles about the weapons. I fired up YouTube and watched a few fencing matches between experts.
Then, I despaired. I kept finding stuff like this:
I was left staring at an unfortunate conclusion: Real swordfighting was really, really boring. Points last a few seconds each and end so fast that it’s hard to understand what the hell just happened. Techniques were not stylish or good-looking, and indeed, where they were used, they were indecipherable to someone like me. Thanks to my Hollywood-programmed mind, I’d gone in expecting to see something… I don’t know. Flashier. Prettier. I’ll concede that to someone who actually knew a great deal about fencing, this kind of thing might be interesting, but that wasn’t me. It probably wasn’t my audience, either.
In this case, Reality just didn’t cut it. It was too boring.
So, I turned off the fencing videos, and I turned on Pirates of the Carribean. Okay, not really, but you get the idea -- I abandoned ‘Real’ and instead went for Cool. I should have done this from the very beginning. Sure, any ‘expert’ (I use the term very, very loosely) in fencing could probably pick apart my action scenes and point to a number of things that just wouldn’t work. But most of my readers will not even notice, and most of those who do notice won’t care. And those who really can’t let it slide aren’t likely to ever admit to actually enjoying a book, game, or movie, so it’s useless trying to please them. They are a special sub-species of Geek that won’t be satisfied with any new thing -- if the writer had chosen to go with Real instead of Cool, they’d be complaining about that, too.
I don’t mean ‘Geek’ as an insult -- I self-identify as a Geek.
I like to play video games. I like to tinker with computers, too. When I was younger, I was obsessed with Star Wars and had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Episodes IV -- VI. I have seen every episode of Babylon V. I think superheroes are cool. I have had romantic fantasies about fictional characters. I read for pleasure. I can tell the difference between Good Science and Bad. I think learning is fun. I find watching sporting events to be incredibly dull, and I’m only likely to enjoy a superbowl party if there are nachos. I have devoted many an idle clock cycle to debating whether Fast Zombies or Slow Zombies are scarier. (Fast Zombies are totally scarier.) I once had a ponytail -- voluntarily.
You know my type, likely.
I’m talking about the sort of geek who, on seeing a science fiction or fantasy film, will make comments like “Tch! That totally wouldn’t have worked in real life.” What? Really? Deflecting bullets with a sword is a no-no, but fire-breathing dragons are okay? Or “I liked it, but it wasn’t realistic at all.” Of course it’s not realistic. It’s Science Fiction. Fantasy. Being at least somewhat divorced from reality is rather a requirement of the genre.
Right. I understand the reasoning behind it, even though it annoys me. People who do this are not really saying “This is not realistic, therefore I do not like it.” What they’re really saying is “Look! Look how much I know about gunplay, swordfighting, lasers, or whatever it is we happen to be talking about. If I sound convincing enough, maybe you will think I’m an expert. Please think I’m cool. Oh my god, I just want someone to like me!”
Now, I must admit that on occasion, this is a legitimate criticism -- especially with Science Fiction, which has more of an obligation to remain somewhat plausible according to what we know about the laws of physics.
Most of the time, however, it’s just annoying. I know it’s not realistic to run along a wall like that. I would agree that a lightsaber could probably cut through the Green Destiny sword. And, sure, while we’re on the subject, let’s be honest… Lois Lane could not handle Superman in the sack. But I don’t care. My tolerance for fudging is higher than that. If I’m being asked to accept something as happening in a film, game, or show, I’ll just do it. Unless it wildly contradicts the accepted rules of reality that have already been set down without offering justification for it.
But is it always bad to strive for realism? No, not always. A little of it can add quite a lot to the story. After all, the more realistic the story elements are, the less risk there is of your audience making the wrong assumptions about the way your world works.
I love it when an author describes a complex skill with a tiny bit of insider-speak or jargon and then inserts enough description into the chapter to let me understand what’s going on without having to consult Wikipedia. It makes me feel a greater connection to the action, be it sailing, smithing, painting, or surviving in the wilderness. It makes me feel like an expert, like I understand the character and their interests, even though the reality is that I haven’t got a clue about how to do any of these things.
Magic systems can also benefit from a little bit of realism. Fantasy authors should think long and hard about what can and cannot be accomplished with Magic, if it exists in their universe. The reader needs to know why the characters’ big, plot-relevant problems cannot be solved with finger-waving and mumbo jumbo. If they don’t, it’s a flaw in the setting, and the overall sense of drama will be reduced because of it. Which is bad.
Rules matter. In Real Life, we have a set of them that everybody has to obey -- this is called Reality, and that these rules are generally agreed upon by all the sane people in the world is what allows us to construct interesting plots. In a film with Standard Reality Rules, if someone pulls a gun on the protagonist, it will produce a sense of danger (unless the writers really fuck up, and the character’s impenetrable plot armor is just that damned obvious). This is because everybody watching the film will assume that bullets are as dangerous as they are in the Real World, and that getting shot could be lethal to the characters in the story.
The cool thing about Fantasy and Sci-Fi is that the author can change the rules. This is the whole reason I love these genres so much -- I get really wrapped up in fiction that stretches my imagination, especially stuff that causes me to accept an alternate version of our reality for a little while. The best of these stories often take place in worlds that are radically different from our own, worlds where wondrous technology or powerful magic is commonplace and has influenced every layer of society. When it works, these worlds are really hard to leave, and the books that take place in them are harder to put down because of it.
Yet every rule that’s changed needs to be redefined for the audience, or they’ll get confused when their understanding of reality’s rules for that universe is violated. They’ll forgive it a couple of times, but if you keep changing the rules and offering no explanation for it, they’ll lose touch with your setting eventually.
So. tl;dr version:
Fantasy is indeed better than Reality. But in order for the audience to accept your Fantasy as true, you need to explain the framework of your alternative reality to them.