When I see a poorly-written trans character in fiction, I have a lot of reactions simultaneously. These range from the gut emotional (“wow, this writer hates people like me”) to the technical and intellectual (“wow, this is an ineffective character that detracts from the story”). But one thing I never think is “this character is unrealistic”. Why?
Let’s talk about realism. Here we go: it’s bullshit. Good talk, good talk.
But seriously, “realism” is upheld in creative writing courses and fiction criticism everywhere as the gold standard of character writing, and I think that’s, uh, bad. Which is to say that it does untold damage to the culture of fiction writing and to the representation of marginalized identities.
- Realism is too low of a bar. A lot of weird things happen every day on this planet that seem too out there to be believed, but are inherently “realistic” by virtue of being real. Thus, any writing choice can be argued to be “realistic” if it could conceivably happen or exist – an impossibly meaningless standard. Lazy authors often justify their use of vile stereotypes this way. Stricter standards demand that events and character choices follow logically from a base set of assumptions, but that still doesn’t make it good storytelling.
- Realism is also too high of a bar. Using reality as a yardstick for fiction limits the possible stories that one can tell! If we have to make our worlds “realistic”, how can we write about a world that’s better than this one? What about the world we want to see? Shouldn’t our stories be able to help pave the way towards that future?
- Realism has no place in genre fiction. This one seems obvious but some people always need to be reminded. What counts as “realistic” when you throw out the laws of reality? When you’re dealing with aliens and monsters, old gods and exoplanets, how can anyone definitively say what is and isn’t realism? Even more grounded genres like comedy, action, or romance have massively unrealistic elements as staples – that’s part of why we love them!
- Realism is subjective. The big one, and the one that ties into all of the above. The thing is, no one can agree what’s realistic. People all have their own experiences and backgrounds, and different things make sense to different readers. Plenty of folks are downright ignorant! Striving for some mythical Realism is just as impossible as trying to please everyone, and for the same reasons.
I hear what you’re saying now: “But when people talk about realism, don’t they just mean that everything should make a certain amount of sense and be internally consistent?” Maybe some do, and those are certainly good, simple goals for any storyteller! But I think we should use different language to talk about those goals, because while it was never perfect to begin with, the idea of “realism” has been tainted irrevocably by assholes.
You know the type; the ones who are whining about “historical accuracy” whenever someone wants to cast a brown person in a period piece. “Realism” has become their rallying cry in their ongoing war on representation of POC, women, and queer/trans people in fiction. Why aren’t there any people of color in Brave or How to Train Your Dragon? “Realism.” What’s up with all the grotesque rape and violence in Game of Thrones? “Realism.” Why did John Protagonist and Jane Protagonist get thrust into a forced, stilted romance again and again and again? “Realism.” I realize the irony of saying this in an article that contains the word over a dozen times, but I kind of never want to hear someone say “realism” again.
If realism is irrelevant to good storytelling, how should we judge a piece’s merits instead? Well, in my reviews here, I always ask myself two questions about a comic: Is it natural? and Is it effective?
Let’s bring it back to trans representation. When a trans character talks about their identity or transition like I do, I find that natural. When they react to transphobia or cissexism in a way I recognize from my own life, that’s natural too. But when they exist as a joke about men in dresses, or when they start overexplaining their experience or mentioning their transness in awkward places, you’ve lost me. Natural characters are ones that feel like they have an identifiable personality and relatable emotions. Realism doesn’t come into it; this applies just as much to shapeshifting alien hair monsters as it does humans!
Effectiveness is more about the story you’re trying to tell and how you communicate it to your audience. When you depict transphobia, is it clear to the reader which side you – and the narrative – are on? Does subjecting your trans characters to misgendering or assault further the story, or is it merely a cheap ploy for an emotional response? If you’re derailing your plot or alienating your intended audience, you’re not making effective writing choices. Again, you can write effectively without worrying about realism, like if you want to put a trans girl in your 50s greaser story without worrying about the nitty gritty historical implications.
“Wait, don’t those rules apply to writing in general, not just trans stuff?” Ding ding ding ding ding! You just won the grand prize my friend! “And can’t these be extrapolated to characters of any identity?” Holy shit ding ding ding! You just won the secret double grand prize! Cultivating a familiarity with different experiences so you can incorporate them effectively and naturally into your writing is way more important than worrying about “realism”.
Is there a place for realism in criticism? Well, maybe. Words are words, and there’s no word that means exactly the same thing as any other. But when you feel the urge to criticize something as unrealistic, or to defend something as realistic, I’d ask you to stop and consider whether that’s what you really mean. For an author, treating their reader with respect is far more critical.