In one particular episode of Mythbusters, Adam Savage utters the line: "Reality makes a crappy special effects crew."
You know what else reality often makes? Crappy genre fiction.
Obviously, it depends on the story, and it depends on the reader (or viewer, or what have you). But let me give you an example. I will use me as said example, because I’ve discovered that I tend to be more familiar with my own opinions and preferences than almost anyone else’s. Odd how that works out.
Let’s take Night of the Living Dead. It’s not only the first of the true "zombie movies," but it’s still held up today as one of the greatest of the genre. The mood, the story, the effects, the tension, even a societal message… It’s, in almost all respects (and allowing for the differences in time period, of course) a phenomenal movie.
I can’t watch it.
Not because it’s too frightening. Not because I don’t like what the movie’s doing. But because of Barbra. One character who spends pretty much the entire movie either hysterically freaking out or borderline catatonic. It’s partly the way the role is written, and partly the way it was acted, but she annoys. The ever-loving. Crap. Out of me. Enough so that I cannot appreciate the rest of the movie around her.
Thing is, there is no doubt in my mind that her reaction is probably the most realistic one we’ve ever seen, or ever will see, in a zombie movie. I feel confident in saying that most of you reading this–and indeed, a statistically significant majority of the people writing this–would turn into a big, blubbering ball of whimpering (with soiled pants) if we were actually confronted with an uprising of the walking dead.
But the fact that it’s realistic doesn’t mean it makes for good watching/reading. I watch stories, in part, to see the characters doing things, taking action, overcoming. If I wanted to watch people scream and freak out and not accomplish a damn thing, I’d turn on C-SPAN.
Now, I accept the fact that, as measured against the bulk of the movie’s target audience, I’m in the minority with my reaction. I’m not suggesting that Romero should have made the movie differently. I simply bring this up as an example of ways that, for some people in some situations, realism isn’t necessarily the right goal for a storyteller to pursue.
Yes, lots of people talk about wanting "realism" in fantasy, sci-fi, or horror. And I believe that they believe that’s true. But I also think, for the most part, they’re mistaken. They’re misinterpreting what they want.
People don’t want realism. People want believability. (Or, if you prefer the five-dollar word, "verisimilitude.") It’s not about whether something’s actually realistic; it’s about whether they can believe it.
It’s called "suspension of disbelief." I’m sure most of you have heard that phrase. It refers to the audience’s ability to lose themselves in the story and believe in what’s happening in the story’s context, no matter how realistic or unrealistic it might be outside that context.
Every story needs suspension of disbelief, to one extent or another. And every consumer has his or her own line, beyond which something is unacceptable. For some people, that line is really close to "reality" (or what they perceive as reality). But even for these people, I’d argue, the fact that they want their stories realistic is a symptom of the fact that their line for believability is pretty strict, as opposed to itself being the cause.
Some people don’t like zombie movies at all, because for them, the idea of reanimated dead is simply too unbelievable. They cannot or will not stretch their suspension of disbelief to that point. So in that regard, they prefer more "realistic" fare than fans of zombie movies.
But how realistic are "realistic" movies? When I was in high school, I went to see Fried Green Tomatoes. (My date at the time wanted to see it. Shut up.) At the beginning of this movie, one of the main characters loses a friend (or relative; I don’t remember) because said individual gets his foot stuck in a railroad track and becomes ad-hoc wheel lubricant.
Okay, no problem. But later in the movie (and quite some years later in the story), pretty much the exact same thing happens to a different character. This second character lives, but loses a limb, but it’s the same situation: Kids playing on the tracks, one happens to get stuck in the exact same way as a train comes by.
And I couldn’t accept it. Threw me right out of the movie. It felt like a level of coincidence that was just too much. Is it possible? Sure. Are zombies possible? No (at least not by any laws of science we currently know). And yet, I can accept the latter more than the former, because (at least when they’re well done), the portrayal of zombies is believable even if it’s not realistic; whereas the sheer improbability of that coincidence in Fried Green Tomatoes might have been technically realistic, but at least to me, it wasn’t believable.
Dragons shouldn’t be able to fly (wing-to-weight ratio). But even when they’re not explained away with magic, we accept them in most fantasy settings because they fit in well enough thematically that we can believe their presence. Most stunts we see in action movies aren’t physically possible. (My mention of Mythbusters above? That show has come close to ruining a lot of action movie tropes, because I’m finding them harder and harder to believe. But in a good action movie, where they feel right, I’m far more forgiving.) But sometimes, a writer can just tell a better story by following dramatic necessity rather than "reality." How many times have James Bond or Dean Winchester been knocked out by a blow to the head? You know what happens with a blow to the head that’s hard enough to knock someone out in real life? Either they’re only out for a few seconds, or they suffer real, lasting damage. There’s almost no middle ground. But how much storytelling would you get out of a secret agent or monster hunter who wound up bed-ridden and drooling after the first act of the first episode? (Also, the first reaction most people have to waking up after having been knocked unconscious is to vomit hideously, but most of us don’t want to see that happening on screen, either.)
And of course, all of this doesn’t even go into the question of "What’s real?" That’s a philosophical debate I have no intention of getting into, but just as one quick example: In Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant and Screaming Kid #1 avoid the T-Rex by holding perfectly still, because the critter’s visual acuity is based on movement. Except that it wasn’t, and scientists figured that out well after the movie was made. So does the fact that the science in that scene was wrong ruin it, or does the fact that it was right based on what we knew at the time make it forgivable even in retrospect? (Also, we know now that dinos in the velociraptor family were probably feathered.)
What’s my bottom line here? Well, in part I’m just ruminating about the hazards and pitfalls of genre writing. (Oh, such tribulations! Woe is me!) But in part, I think, it’s more a general appeal to writers and the audience both: Don’t worry so much about whether something is "realistic." Write it well, write it consistently with the rules you’ve already established, write it believably, and the audience (or at least the bulk of the audience, which is all you can really hope for anyway) will believe. If it’s not believable, it doesn’t matter how realistic it may be; and if it is believable, it still doesn’t matter how realistic it might be.