The Nature of Realism

How to avoid the popularity of realism leading you into an anxious state of writing only 'what you know'.

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It is 2020, the launch is imminent of two major gaming consoles: the PS5 and the XBOX Series X. The biggest selling point is the same as always, the fastest processors and the best graphics cards, which render the most lifelike graphics and exciting gameplay ever.

With each release of FIFA and Metal Gear, the characters become more and more lifelike, nudging ever further towards matching real skin and real hair, and real everything.

Nintendo overlooks a good deal of the visual and historical realism found on the offerings of Sony and Microsoft, presenting gamers with Mario, Pokemon and Yoshi. Who are encountered in paper, knitted and a mix of 3D and 2D form. You do not bleed and clutch your chest in pain when you are attacked in Nintendo’s games, and one of the rare nods to realism comes in Zelda with the way the wind blows across the meadows of Hyrule; a fantastical type of realism, rather than the gruesome war-based and zombie-filled realism you find on the other two gaming systems.

All three gaming systems have their committed fans, some hungering for greater and greater realism. While all the time they push further and further from the regular world both in terms of place, history and person. Echoes of this happen in fiction too, for example in historical novels and crime novels where people hunger for accuracy but also, paradoxically, for extremes.

Meanwhile, writing groups often wring their hands over whether writing is convincingly real. But our basis is a bizarre kind of realism, unknowable to all but the rarest of readers and this conflicts with a common creative writing mantra, ‘write what you know’. Together they provide a state of paralysis.

Most of us don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone, or to carry a gun or a knife; we haven’t harboured the intent to murder someone. What do we know? We know what it’s like to live in everyday western society, the same as everyone else. There’s nothing particularly special, or uncommon, about our experience and so we should leave the writing to those who have lived through adversity of the most extreme kinds.

Wait. Step back a second. What if we tried to be more Nintendo in our writing? Can we admit the falsity of the fiction we write. After all, there has been a long history of this. Rabelais made his own absurd worlds, as did Spenser and Swift, B.S. Johnson and Angela Carter. Their satirical viewpoints pushing back against realism, never afraid to make a tear in the curtain.

Despite this history, it is difficult to add a unique voice to experimental and satirical ficiton. It is also difficult to put energy into the next Flatland, or a similarly artistic work of fiction, knowing the poor public reception this type of writing typically receives. And so realism is often the obvious path for writers, especially those who would like to be read.

This is not a reason to forget that all ficiton is artifice. Words on paper are not wind and blood. They are used to knit the skins that are superimposed onto a series of actions and events imagined by the author. If you forget this, it is possible to fall into an anxiety about whether or not something you have written will be convincingly real to the brain of your reader.

In truth, nothing is real, your reader understands this and the more you seek fidelity with the real world, the more obvious your deviations from it. This anxiety can lead you into a lack of confidence where the only thing you are capable of writing is about the coffee shop you visit every day.

You need instead to build confidence in your research and your ability to render worlds, realistic or otherwise, which will absorb your reader. ‘Write what you know’ is a poor mantra, it would be better written, ‘use what you know’. Use your knowledge and experience of the world and being human, your voice, to bring to life the research that you carry out, and thereby explore the things which concern you.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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