Representation and Realism

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?

Sorry Zack, this scene isn’t realistic enough. Better scrap it!

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.

Everyone's white in Scandinavia, didn't you know. That's just realistic.
Everyone’s white in Scandinavia, didn’t you know? That’s just realistic.

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?

Even an alien can be coded as trans if you make their experience recognizable enough.
Even an alien can be coded as trans if you make their experience recognizable enough.

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!

Is this "historically accurate"? I dunno dude, I wasn't there. All I know is I like it.
Is this “historically accurate”? I dunno dude, I wasn’t there. All I know is I like it.

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.

What's happening in this scene? I dunno! But Cassandra's transness is clear and natural regardless.
What’s happening in this scene? I dunno! But Cassandra’s transness is clear and natural regardless.

“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.

7 comments on “Representation and Realism

  1. Fist thing first: Thanks for the great article. It´s always a pleasure to read your creator resources and this is a topic that I find to be particularly frustrating. I have some troubles wording exactly what this feels like, but I hope to make this understandable anyway.
    The realism argument is one that only seems to apply when it helps to further employ oppressive thoughts.
    What I mean with this is, that on the one hand it is used to protect offensive stereotypes and tropes and, on the other hand, denounces minorities in many genres.
    “X people aren´t in this story because that would not be realistic” and “this story isn´t realistic because it has x people in it”. Realism is used as a seal of quality and everything seems to be automatic realistic if it is only starring white cishet people. At least, many people won´t question casting choices.
    This gives authors a free ticket on everything they come up with, as long as they use familiar casts and tropes. Breaking from the mold often results in harsher criticism.

    The thing is, we live in a world with a bunch of different, very diverse people and the media made is consumed by those people. Best case scenario would be the media representing all of those people, instead of a tiny fraction of them.

    I have often thought about realism, because “Strayer” combines stuff I like and leaves out stuff I don´t like. Therefore heterosexual characters are pretty rare. So I ask myself often if this is realistic and the answer would probably be “no”. It´s pretty natural, though. People tend to socialize with others that are similar to themselves. Also, if all kinda of media is allowed to feature casts that are completely white, hetero and cis I figure I´m allowed to do the same, but the other way around.

    I´m not a perfect or even great author and I know that much of the representation I try to get into my comic is clumsy at best. It´s hard to leave this nagging “realism” and the related tropes behind. I think I´ve said it before, but even if you´re part of the group you try to portray, you can fail pretty hard.
    Reviews like yours help to revaluate stuff like that, though and I hope your stuff will keep helping people like me with their writing.

  2. I think the idea of realism depends entirely on what it is you’re making. See, I wouldn’t put black people in Brave, because it’s set in a time when there wouldn’t be any POC in that area. HtTYD is debatable as it’s an AU fantasy, and not bound by the rules that limit historical fiction. I don’t have a problem with Idris Elba playing Heimdallr in a MARVEL movie, but if it was a movie about actual Norse myths, I’d have a problem. I imagine you’re angry about Gods of Egypt having white main characters? I certainly am, but you can’t just turn around and say that because they’ve never been oppressed, it doesn’t matter if you fuck with a historically white culture. When it comes to the modern day, you could cast anyone in any roles you want and I couldn’t care less.

    Realism of the kind you talk about in this article – that being “feeling natural” – is the only reason I don’t have any trans/non-binary characters in my book. I want to, believe me, but I simply don’t have the experience necessary to write about such things. It wouldn’t feel natural to any trans people reading it. And of course you could say “look it up” but I find that information isn’t conveyed very well over text. If I ever actually have any trans friends that I could sit down and talk to who were willing to sit down and talk about it, maybe then I could have trans characters but it’s still a big maybe, because I’m not inside their head.

    1. Okay so first off, I want to address your comment about Brave. Our preconceptions about the past are based on a dominant narrative of history that is constantly being rewritten by people with the most power. Your notion that there were no black people in Scotland during the setting of Brave is not actually correct. I highly recommend you check out, which debunks a lot of these misconceptions.

      But, as I repeatedly said above, that’s completely beside the point. There’s no reason historical accuracy should come into it at all. Challenging an audience by using story elements that seem anachronistic (whether or not they actually are) can be a great hook or focal point to a story as long as it’s done effectively. And besides that, when you write, you’re writing for a modern audience – if you want to teach them something about history, great, but that should be a secondary consideration to appealing to people now. Representation is one of the most important ways to do that; if a reader can see themself in your work, they’ll be more invested.

      That said, I’m pretty disappointed that you’re saying that making Norse gods black is just as bad as making ancient Egyptian gods white?? Whitewashing is a modern and historical strategy of racial oppression, a deliberate campaign of propaganda to prop up white supremacy; “blackwashing” is… not even a thing. There’s no comparison between the two concepts.

      And while I definitely don’t want to see writers try to represent me incompetently, I think making a conscious choice to exclude trans characters instead of trying to become more competent at writing them is a mistake. But I’ll save that for the article I’m writing about that very subject.

      Keep reading, I hope you’ll learn something.

      1. I had this whole big reply typed out but it expired so whatever.

        The one thing I wanted to say was that I do have trans characters in my books but I’m not writing said books at the moment, and my inability to portray trans people accurately is a (admittedly rather small) contributing factor to that.

  3. Interesting article for sure. I agree the focus on realism is unhelpful in many ways, and that authors and artists shouldn’t use “realism” as an excuse for a lack of representation or mistreatment of characters and other such things.

    Something that was important to the 17th Century French writers was the concept of “la vraisemblance”, or “verisimilitude”, the extent to which a play or novel was believable. I think we should take this concept back into mind in the current era, and demand that our characters and narratives not be ‘realistic’, but ‘believable’ – someone you could bump into on the street, or a story that could have happened to you or your relatives or someone you knew, sans the fantastical elements of fiction. When you talk about representation, I think this is most important – not whether someone with a certain identity could ‘realistically’ exist in the environment of your story, but whether you have made a believable representation of that identity within a character.

  4. Okay, so some background, my formal education is in mechanical engineering and have mostly been interested in the history of technology and military history. I just want to get it out that I come from a very factual world even if I do appreciate fiction and metaphor a great deal.

    I spent a lot of time thinking about this and how I wanted to reply. And I think I both agree and disagree. People do get too hung up on the technical details of realism to the detriment of examining a work as a story and some of these hang ups are in fact problematic.

    But I don’t think the term ‘realism’ has really been irrevocably tainted. It has too many meanings for that. What is realism? Its literary definition is only tangetnially related to its artistic one in capturing a faithful rendition of the reality. And I honestly don’t think anyone has a problem with calling a comic ‘unrealistic’ in that sense. Mostly in literature it’s a synonym for versimilitude which just happens to be less of a mouthful to say and is really a much less contentious concept than trying to instate an objective reality at least inside of our own heads.

    As for the comment on historical ficture. Here, I have to really part ways with you. If an author is depicting their story as historic and using historic pieces. If they then choose to part ways on significant details (not nitty gritty things but siginificant events) with the best contemporary understanding of history (which is itself, yes, imperfect, but still better than the whims of author), they should not be shrouding their work in a cloak of historic legitimacy it is now either wholely fictitious or propaganda. Full stop.

  5. Note I am not an expert on the subject of genre, and this small essay is meant as an opinion piece on ‘realism’ within fiction; it is not a research essay or factual. With that house cleaning out of the way:

    Realism, or Literary Realism, is a genre of fiction that became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a reaction to classical romanticism. It was predominately, or even entirely spearheaded and dominated by white, male authors, with some ‘allowance’ made for female writers; ‘realism’ is a genre with male gatekeepers because female writers are often considered by those who maintain the literary canon – men – to be incapable of or ill equipped to write things ‘just the facts’ and ‘how they are’. Women’s writing is marginalized and stereotyped as being flowery and soft and…you know the story, I’m sure. If a woman does write in a style more traditionally accepted as being ‘male’, she is often described as ‘unflinching’, or ‘uncompromising’, as if these are unnatural qualifiers to her, and meant to be superior to what she might naturally produce. Literary realism, as the genre that is most frequently seen in the western canon, marginalizes women and other minorities, because it was a movement begun in predominately white, male controlled countries and adopted as the canon, though now, thankfully, this canon is being challenged.

    That is not to say women, people of color, minorities and those in the LGBTQA+ communities have not added to this genre and challenged the status quo. Many have, and these works give voices to those the genre previously excluded.

    But, when talking about ‘realism’ in literature, it is important to remember that we are living in a post modern world, where ‘reality’ is generally understood to be relative to the observer. Because of natural human error in processing information, there are no true ‘facts’ about ‘the way things are’, neither in the natural world or in fiction, or at least how fiction should be perceived and written as ‘real’.

    Realism, as a genre, attempts to portray life as it can be observed, without romanticism or the supernatural. It exists as a movement because, until this point, literature, and story telling in general, was predominately fantastical, or at least romanticized. Our oldest recorded stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, are not ‘realism’, though the fantastical elements of them may have been believed at the time. Story telling is an exercise in explanation for the world around us. As science and rationality grew in popularity following the Enlightenment, the appeal of ‘realistic’ fiction grew also.

    And if a creator wants to adhere strictly to this genre for the sake of the genre, so be it. There’s value in realism, as a genre. But any piece of fiction’s most important aspect is the message it tries to convey. If realism, as it is understood as a genre, cannot effectively portray a message trying to be achieved, it need not be adhered to.

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