My post last month led to a fantastic discussion of a variety of things, including the concept of realism in fantasy. Commenters brought up many excellent points, including the idea that maybe it doesn’t matter if a girl can’t really heft that big sword; isn’t it nice to suspend a little disbelief now and then and believe it could happen?
My answer? It depends on the talent of the writer and the sensibilities of the reader. One of the things I LOVE about Tolkien is that, as a medievalist myself, he pushes all of my scholarly buttons. I enjoy seeing the seeds of our own culture in Middle Earth. But I also love that he’s taken those seeds and grown totally unique flowers. One of the things that turned me off about Steven Erikson’s Malazan Empire series is his unrelentingly realistic depictions of torture and violence. While I understand that he’s not reinventing the wheel here—historically, human beings have developed a marked appreciation for the varied ways to harm one another—but the image of hundreds of crucified children will never burn out of my brain. That was more realism than I could handle. Another reader’s mileage may vary. Regardless, both authors do a bang-up job of making their fantasies realistic to the reader, whether they’re historically accurate or even probable—and that’s good craft.
Sometimes it’s not the big things, but the little details that intrude too much into the story. One of the things I liked about Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion was that whenever the army stopped moving, one of the first things the soldiers did was dig the poop-trenches. I found this to be an excellent small detail that made a lot of sense and said a great deal about the organization of the army, its priorities, and the pecking order (because that definitely wasn’t a job handled by the highest-ranking members). However, I quickly put down another fantasy novel because the main character was constantly menstruating and passing out. It was messy and gross and really took me out of the story. Unless it’s important to the story in some way, I just don’t need to read about certain aspects of reality.
Most importantly, characters should be as realistic as possible in the context of their own world. I will only judge a fictional character by modern standards if the writer hasn’t done a good enough job of convincing me that his/ her world is “real.” And characters need to connect with the reader in a human way, regardless of profession or social status. Whether I’m writing or reading about a princess or a servant, I need to care about the character in order to feel engaged with the story. Everything else is just window dressing.
Ultimately, the question of how much reality is too much all comes down to craft. If I want to drop a couple of female ninjas riding pink hippos into a pseudo-medieval setting, I can—presuming I can get the reader to buy that this is totally plausible in my world. The worldbuilding doesn’t have to be historically accurate for readers to buy in; the real trick is selling the world so well that the reader doesn’t even question whether or not something could or could not happen.