In Which I Poo-Poo ‘Realism’ – Literally

Before I start the blog—which already starts with a forward-type thing—I really feel the need to write this as much as I wish I wasn’t. I mean, I just wrote a send-off to one beloved icon that influenced me and now one of the icons that influenced me has passed.

In case you haven’t heard, Sir Terry Pratchett has passed. Author of seventy books including the Discworld series (personal favorites of mine being Mort, Reaper Man, Lords and Ladies, and of course Small Gods) and Good Omens, Sir Terry wasn’t just one of the many authors I idolized, he was the one I wanted to be.

Not in terms of what he produced; I’m not funny enough to turn in something like Discworld—there’s a reason there’s nothing out there like Discworld and that’s because no one, I fear, is that funny. It isn’t even because of his success and fame, or the sweet meteoric iron sword. No, I’ve always wanted to be Sir Terry in terms of his affect on people.

Reading Pratchett books makes people laugh and think in positive ways. He made us look at our world in a funhouse mirror and see what parts are ridiculous whether they’re distorted or not. He gave us things to smile about and jokes to share—more than any hundred other people will probably leave behind. Go on twitter and you’ll see people talking about all the light this man brought into their lives…

…And that’s what I want to do. I’ve been mocked and ridiculed for not being about the business or the art, but I don’t give a damn. I want the legacy. I want to make you guys, the readers feel and be better for having read my stuff and that’s because I saw what Sir Terry did and what it meant a long, long time ago.

In his own words: “Fantasy is one of the skills that makes us human.”

If you haven’t tried his work yet, please do. If you have and liked it, now would e a great time to re-read your first (I’ve got my copy of Reaper Man at the ready). And if you don’t feel like it or didn’t like any of his work, I’m sure he’ll understand.

In closing, I don’t have words of my own that would be better than those his daughter wrote for him (which make more sense if you’re a fan):

“Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”

Thank you, Sir Terry. Thank you so much.

And thank you, readers for letting me get that off my chest. On to what I wrote Monday night:

Okay, so last week I asked for questions so I could do an ‘Ask Vaal’ segment. Some of you did indeed step up and send me questions, but there was a bit of a problem. Now, I’m not saying I don’t appreciate your questions. In fact, you’ll all find that I did reply to every one of them. The problem is, they mostly ended up as yes or no questions and I just plain couldn’t fill five pages of blog with them.

In fact, to go over the ones that were asked multiple times: Yes, Joykiller will be back eventually. Yes, Cyn’s dad will be back (soonish). Yes, I do know some Celtic mythology and the Authurian legend, I mangled them on purpose (and by necessity because Morganna is established to be a fictional character Elise of Halfren over-identified with, so I couldn’t say all of that happened) and no, I’m not just ignorant. No, I don’t have the pre-translations for the Japanese bits of Shadow of the Kurounagi and will probably just cut the car sequence entirely for the book. And finally, yes, Complete Vol 2 and Book 6 will be out this month It’s just the covers are awful and I already want to do the Book 5 one over. Actually, I would love to redo all of them but Book 4’s. Fantasy ‘object’ covers are so much easier.

Edit: Yeah, so I wrote this Monday, then did the covers Wednesday. So that’s done.

And that’s it. Not even one page, it’s a paragraph. I’m going to leave the request open though. If there’s something, anything you want me to elaborate on as part of the blog, I want to hear it and if I can elaborate on it in this space, I will. You guys are awesome and I couldn’t ask for better fans/readers (I guess some of you might not consider yourselves fans, but I tend to assume you are a fan once you’re reading my supplementary blog).

So what are we talking about this week? Well, as the title suggests, ‘realism’ (note scare quotes) and how much I hate it.

This was inspired by two separate incidents I ran into on the internet (where else?) that left me wondering whether anyone even argues from the ‘realism’ corner if it isn’t to cover up wanting something awful or to push some false fact they’ve bought into. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of verisimilitude is nice, and when you’re actually aiming at being serious or historically accurate or scientifically accurate, that’s fine. But… make sure you know what the hell you’re talking about, guy.

And because I read too much, of course this comes in the form of a list. First up:

Minus 4 Strength

I know people are tired of me harping on this particular subject, and I’ve already shared my experience with people being upset that Pele is a warrior, so I’ll be brief with this one.

In the world of gaming, there is this argument. This really, really stupid argument about having gender-based stats in games. And by ‘stats’, I mean Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma and all derivatives and facsimiles thereof.

Granted, this is better than FATAL, which had racist racial penalties for not being white in general, but not by much. Especially when it always comes around to the idea that female characters should have -4 STR ‘because women are generally weaker than men’. Before I even go any further than that, let me remind you that being a halfling in D&D 3rd Edition only got you a -2 STR—so estrogen reduces your physical strength more than topping out at three feet tall and your average female halfling therefore has a 4 STR – meaning she can’t carry more than a wet sponge without being encumbered. Maybe not even that if it’s a dirty wet sponge.

But this guy on a forum that shall remain nameless (because some members have seriously gone and tattled like little kids when I called them out on Twitter) comes at it from a unique (but no less horrible) angle. That being that sure, it’s okay to have female soldiers… if you make them cyborgs or something to justify womenfolk doing big strong man’s work.

Yes. In order to be ‘realistic’, you have to give women superpowers in order to make it okay for them to be soldiers. Ignoring the question of why, if men are all inherently better at soldering than women, you wouldn’t just cyborg the men and still keep the women out of the army… there are women in combat roles right now. My country is backward as hell and only recently allowed it, but most civilized fighting forces field women now. Hell, even terrorists use women in their attacks now and those are the guys who took the… problematic… attitudes toward women found in the texts of the Abrahamic religions and shifted them into maximum over-jackass.

His argument is that it would hurt the reader’s sense of reality to see lots of women who weren’t super-powered in combat roles. Clearly, he’s using ‘realism’ here to cover for pre-existing prejudices because reality itself just called him a dumbass. I argue that, just like the dude who was bothered by the actually super-powered Pele being a fighter, I am under no obligation to care about people whose senses of realism are harmed by this beyond making fun of them.

Gettin’ Scatological

Okay, so this section is going to be talking about bodily functions that normal human beings don’t enjoy discussing at length. Believe me, I would rather not, but it fits the theme. If you don’t want to hear about that kind of stuff even in the framework of this discussion, go to the next bolded section. I wish you could take me with you.


I love Dwarf Fortress. It’s fiddly, it’s hard to learn, and it is utterly insane. Just yesterday, a random farmer of mine came face-to-mandible with a giant louse, grabbed its front right leg… and punched its brain to mush. This wasn’t an event. This wasn’t something I made happen. She was just heading out to grab some wood I’d ordered cut down, turned a corner and found herself cast as Sigourney Weaver’s bearded great-aunt. I didn’t know it was going on until I got a complaint from her that the chitinous horror had interrupted her wood-gathering task.

That’s what Dwarf Fortress is like; you order your dwarves around, the world moves around them and… stuff happens based on the most complex interactions I’ve ever seen computed. You have to make sure they’re fed, sheltered, boozed up and happy, or bad things will happen. Then bad things happen anyway.

…and some people want the player to have to tend to their excrement and urine too. Also drown their enemies in it.

It’s something I’ve noticed a lot in discussions where people demand realism: no one asks for more realism to make things nicer. It is always an entropic process. Very, very few people seem overly concerned about, say making dwarves clean and take baths more often when the fort becomes covered in blood, ichor and vomit for the sake of ‘realism’ in that the dwarves wouldn’t want to be covered in that stuff. No one was loudly demanding the art system the dev is putting in which seems pretty important for dwarves to have a culture, but they act like you’re crazy for not wanting crap everywhere and literally say that the game makes no sense without it.

Can someone explain this tendency? It shows up in writers forums too. Here are two conversations I have actually had.:

“I wrote a scene with my character straining on the toilet because that happens to people” “What purpose did it serve to the story?” “None, but it’s something people do!”

“I don’t like stories that end with a happily ever after?” “That’s how the genre conventions work and that’s what the story builds to! Plus, I mean sometimes people do live long, happy lives with the person they love.” “Happy endings are boring and not art!”

No, I’m not making up strawmen. I’ve heard people say these things. These exact things. In this case, realism is an excuse to delve into taboo or dark subjects where they would otherwise be unnecessary. I’m sure there are stories where someone having the runs is super-important to the tale… but most of the time, the author’s reason isn’t that there’s a good reason, only ‘realism says it’s okay to do this’–like they know it’s something most people don’t want to hear about, but want to shame you into listening.

I’ve called this ‘vomit coating’ in the past: where a setting has a thin glaze of random, inexplicable nastiness and grossness added to it for atmosphere. It happens mostly in Fantasy, where the authors is under the impression that people in the Middle Ages just kind of went in the corner and kicked it out into the middle of the street.

While there were massive sanitation breakdowns following the fall of the Roman Empire, that’s because the actual sewage systems broke down without the tech to fix them, or living memory of night soil collectors that took your… leavings… away and sold it for fertilizer. People weren’t disgusting to be disgusting, they didn’t know what to do and those conditions didn’t last long (because they killed everyone).

And speaking of asking for things that don’t make anything better…

Making The Simple Complex

There is another argument among gamers and game designers over whether a game should simulate reality or abstract things for the sake of making a fun game. The two sides are known as ‘simulaitonist’ and ‘gamist’ respectively and if you’ve read my posts for WoE D20, you know I’m strictly on the gamist side. I can understand the simulationist argument, but some of the loudest voices on that side fall victim to a fallacy that makes me not want to play their games.

Namely, they think that adding complexity adds to the simulation. So instead of, say rolling to hit, they’ll have you roll to see if you make contact, then see if you penetrate armor, and somewhere along the way, there will be a method to determine what you hit and how that affected the target. Forget hit points, it’s all about what got harmed, so one-shot kills and hours-long one vs one battles are the order of the day thanks to not taking the fact that combat is now all random chance into consideration.

Why do this? Does it make the game more fun for them? Does it add something to the game that’s been missing? If these were the reasons given, I could shrug and walk away, but no, it’s always ‘because the other way doesn’t make sense’.

They just can’t wrap their head around abstraction. It ‘doesn’t make sense’ that every ‘hit’ deals damage regardless of armor because they don’t get that a mechanical miss can very well be glancing off armor. They can’t accept that lost hit point loss can be an actual bleeding wound, but can also be a representation of being worn down until you can’t block, dodge or mitigate the killing blow, and can also be a representation of your plot armor degrading.

So they try to make this thing that takes every little variable into account. Weapons have speeds and penetrating depths and fatigue ratings. Al of this to serve not the actual objective (making a fun game people will play) but to satisfy what amounts to intellectual curiosity. I can get behind wondering how you would represent walking down a hall and not stubbing your toe; it’s a fun diversion. But ask me to play in a game where I have to roll dice to see if I stub my toe? No. No I will not.

In writing, this comes in the form of writers who are beyond eager to show their work. They’ll go into a ton of detail about a process they researched… that ultimately does nothing for the story. You’ll often see this in an expository tour of some facility that the main characters are visiting for reasons having nothing to do with, say, newspaper printing. But the author now has all the knowledge of the printing process in their head from researching the floor plan and want to make sure you know too… for realism, see?

No, that’s not realism, that a lack of conservation of detail. Nothing that doesn’t advance the story, serve characters, or build the setting should survive. If you tell me where moon pies come from, moon pie manufacture better damn well be crucial to the plot.

The Bottom Line

Realism is fine, assuming you actually did the research and it’s there for a reason. It really can add to the experience in a number of ways. But, as always, be mindful of why you’re aiming for realism and be honest about what you’re actually trying to do. And if you just want to be gross or edgy (I spared you the ‘realism as an excuse for unnecessary sexual violence and death in stories’ thing), then grow up and admit that that’s what you want. Don’t pretend you’re adding realism when you’re just vomit-coating. And for the love of all that is sacred, realize when you’re making things more complicated than they need to be. It might just save whatever you’re working on, be it a story, a game, or just an internet discussion.

Before I go, thanks to infinite_jester03. I’m thanking you publicly because while you left your user name, I don’t have a record of your email, forum profile or comments here, so this is the only way I can contact you. You are awesomesauce with a side of epic fries.

Oh, and Street Team members, expect incoming by the end of the week even if I just have placeholder covers.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. On Pratchett: I think my first book of his was Jingo, so it has a special place in my heart (borrowed it from an aunt over Christmas one year. I was away from home and lacking books on a slow day. I will always be grateful). My favorites are probably Monstrous Regiment, Hogfather, Lords and Ladies, Reaper Man, The Truth, and Small Gods, so I guess we’re partially of like minds on that score. The man gave me a lot of laughs over the years, and some of them came in otherwise unhappy times, when I needed them badly, but I loved the fact that there was always more to it than that. In fact, I think my love for Pratchett ties into the subject of realism, because his books, despite the fact that Discworld was never intended to be wholly coherent and was a strange hodgepodge of a fantasy, had the kind of realism that mattered most: emotional realism.

    When I say “emotional realism” I mean that the people are people. It is a comedic series, so of course personalities are often exaggerated, but there is always a solid core of real humanity in each of his characters, whether it was Death, Albert, Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Angua, Polly…they all have that emotional core that is part of being human, and that is what allows their stories to mean something.

    I don’t think other types of realism are worthless, or that research is irrelevant, or anything like that. But stories by humans are ultimately for humans, as well, and (by necessity, because we’ve never encountered another form of sapient life) they are also about humans on a deep level, even if the characters are blob-people, talking animals, or energy clouds from Virgon 6’s rings. You can change the fundamental laws of physics in your fictional setting. You can write about Jedi, Wizards, Superheroes, Magical Girls, or any other group of special people. But they are always human underneath, and that is the only kind of realism that is irreplaceable, to me.

    I read the Descendants for the superpowers, in part, but mostly to see Warrick’s brand of heroism meeting the real world and being adapted somewhat as he finds the right way to apply his ideals, or Cyn’s slow growth into someone who can talk about herself and trust people more on a personal level as she is given the affection she needs and forges positive relationships, and all of the other human facets of everyone else. It’s the same with everything else I read. Ideas are great, and can expand the mind. Settings can be cool and interesting. Plots can be fun, with unexpected twists. Characters are always the heart of it, though. If I don’t care about the characters, I won’t care about anything that happens to them, anything they do, or whether their world improves or suddenly blows up for no reason.

    Realism (and other words, like “Maturity”) are unfortunately co-opted too often, I think, as excuses for things in fiction. Partly, I think it’s a matter of unscrupulous/untalented people cashing in on buzzwords. Partly, I think it’s people (well-intentioned or otherwise) reading, hearing, or seeing something good and making a mistake – confusing the trappings of a successful (creatively or financially, depending on the individual) thing with the heart of it. That’s how we ended up with so many Fantasy trilogies that blatantly ripped off the Lord of the Rings once it became popular. Some of them had original twists and unique vision. Some of them were empty, devoid of the creative spark needed for fiction to mean something more. It’s how we end up with Hollywood movies and trailers that do the same thing to prior successes, grabbing the outer semblance of a successful thing and trying to wear it like a suit in the hopes that viewers will see the suit and fail to notice that there is nothing wearing it.

    • I am right there with you on the emotional realism thing, both from the standpoint of why Pratchett’s books stick with you so well and on how important it is. I wish I had made mention of that in the post.

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