The Trouble With Realistic Fiction

One of my pet peeves is when someone starts complaining about how something in a bit of fiction (be it book, television show, or movie) could never happen in real life. I always want to ask them if they slept through every single realty vs. fantasy lesson in school, because it seems that they’ve missed the point that fiction isn’t supposed to be real.

I’m not really sure when it happened, perhaps around the time crime shows became popular or when technology started trying to catch up to television and movies rather than aspiring to greater things, but people started complaining when an event in a fictional world didn’t match how it would most likely happen in the real world. And they started feeling smug for pointing this out, in much the same way a kid who made it into eighth grade despite failing seventh grade on an epic level acts smug. It’s really bizarre.

The point of fiction…is to not tell a nonfiction story. Should it be believable? It does make things easier to process. Our brains, made more and more unimaginative by various factors, can’t seem to handle anything less. Should it show exactly what happens in the real world? No. We have the real world for that. Fiction is a chance to escape, to imagine what could be or what might have been. It’s a chance to explore ideas and situations, to extend them in theoretical directions, to analyze the emotions that they present and that they stir up in us.

I’d offer the suggestion that fiction is also meant to entertain, but there are plenty of examples of fiction that educate or influence consumers just as there are plenty of examples of nonfiction that entertain.

What makes this complaint even worse is when the story is either science fiction or fantasy. By their very nature, science fiction and fantasy aren’t going to tell stories that could be mistaken for documentaries. Science fiction is imagining future situations with levels of technology or scientific understanding that we don’t presently have, or it’s presenting alternate histories where technology and scientific understanding developed in a way ours didn’t. Fantasy often takes place in worlds (some of them contemporary with our current world) where magic permeates the world and life in general. While the best science fiction and fantasy need to be constructed in a manner consistent and logical with the rules of the world the story takes place in, neither has a hope of showing something that would happen in our world. Neither genre is meant to show reality.

So, the next time someone starts complaining about how the fictional story they’re consuming couldn’t happen in real life, I think I’m either going to start recommending they stick to documentaries or just reply, “Yeah, that’s why it’s fiction.”

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