Jul 10 2011

22 Ways Fiction is Usually Different than Reality

Published by at 12:49 pm under Realism,Romance

Two psychologists independently argue that romance novels are unrealistic and set their readers up for unhealthy relationships. Take Twilight, for instance.   Bella falls for Edward because he’s preposterously good-looking (as she reminds us incessantly), tough (abusively so) and more exciting/unpredictable than the nice guys she knows.  If Bella were your friend in real life, you’d probably beg her to stay away from this unhealthy relationship even if Edward weren’t 50+ years older.  Do you think she’ll have the guts to walk away when Edward starts (keeps) abusing her? Hell no–she wasn’t even tough enough to walk away when he told her to.


I think that fiction authors of every sort frequently bend reality to make their stories more entertaining.  Here are some other common examples.


1.  Fictional dialogue is generally wittier and more concise than in real life.  Most real-life conversations have a lot of idle chatter, but there’s less time to waste in a novel (usually ~80-90,000 words) or comic book (~22 pages).


2.  Across the board, when a character lies, somebody will almost always find out.  A perfectly-maintained lie is not as dramatic as dealing with the consequences of being found out.


3.  By the end of the story, the main character will almost always know everything important.  It’s very rare for, say, a detective to fail to solve the case even though it happens quite often in real life.  (Half of U.S. murders go unsolved).


4.  The story tends to revolve around the main characters and everybody else gets sidelined.  For example, Harry Potter goes off on adventures and saves the world because nobody actually running Hogwarts seems to have any idea about the nefarious plots unfolding there each year.  (Don’t even get me started on the Ministry of Magic).  In contrast, I really liked how the TV show Dexter handled this–Dexter is a serial killer with a day job as a police lab tech.  Instead of passively benefiting from incompetent authorities, his coworkers are competent enough to pose an obstacle, so he sabotages them to keep himself safe. For example, he frequently delays investigations by planting evidence to implicate plausible suspects.

4.1.  Authority figures are useless, unless they’re the main characters.  It wouldn’t be a very satisfying horror story if the victims could just call the police, right?  So authority figures (like the police in any kind of story, parents and teachers in young adult fiction, the army in alien invasion stories, etc) will almost always be useless, antagonistic or unreachable.  Outside of a police story, when was the last time the police actually solved a case on their own?


5.  Cellphones fail surprisingly often, especially when it would short-circuit the plot.  Count on the batteries to run out, the phone to get misplaced or stolen or damaged, the reception to fail, and/or something exotic like electronic jamming or magical interference.  Alternately, perhaps the character never had a cellphone for financial or criminal reasons or the character has a working phone but does not call the police because he/she would also be implicated in illegal activity.


6. Protagonists almost always accomplish their main goals.  Even relatively unhappy endings that kill off the protagonist will usually let him/her finish the mission first.  Otherwise, most readers would be really unsatisfied, right?  On this front, I’d recommend watching the original Wicker Man, a classic horror movie.  The main character doesn’t complete his initial goal, but he does get revenge.


7. Internal monologues are usually coherent and well-edited.  The more realistic alternative, a jumbled stream-of-consciousness, is extremely hard to read.


8.  Protagonists are almost never primarily motivated by money.  It would compromise their likability and I think deeper motivations are usually more dramatic.


9. It’s a small world–sometimes it feels like everybody knows the main character.  The easiest way to become a supervillain is apparently to know a superhero.  For example, among Spiderman’s villains, Venom is a rival at work, Lizard is one of his professors, the first Green Goblin is his best friend’s father, the second Green Goblin is his best friend, a werewolf is his boss’ son, etc.  In contrast, it would be extremely uncommon for a police officer to have any sort of preexisting relationship with a criminal, except perhaps in the smallest towns.  Note: This may be somewhat plausible if the superpowers run in families or have a common theme.  For example, almost all of Peter Parker’s villains got their superpowers through super-science, and he knows a lot of people on the cutting edge of science.  In the X-Men, mutant parents tend to have mutant kids, so it’s not terribly surprising that Cyclops has a superpowered brother or that Mystique is Nightcrawler’s mother.


10. Novels and comic books tend to have fairly small casts.  For example, if your main character is a ten year old, you don’t need to name 30+ classmates (even though he/she would probably have that many in real life).  If you do scenes at school, you’ll probably just go with the 5-10 students that affect the main character the most.  Over 70+ years of stories, Batman has probably met a few hundred named people.   Hell, if you went to a big high school, you probably met more people than that in your classes.


11. Being evil pretty much guarantees that you will win the second act but lose in the end.  Even if you do somehow beat the heroes, they’ll probably get away and you won’t accomplish anything meaningful.



12. Superhero stories almost always gloss over things that would not be very fun.  When was the last time Batman canvassed a neighborhood for witnesses or did an all-night stakeout that found absolutely nothing?


13. It is unrealistically easy for superheroes to find crime in plain sight.  Your superhero drives/flies/slings around the city and just happens to notice a bank robbery?  First, America’s largest city (New York) has only ~450 bank robberies and ~300 outdoors murders in a typical year, so it’d probably be really hard to find one on a given day unless you were patrolling a massive area or knew where/when to look.  And God help you if other superheroes in town have the same idea. See points #2-9 in How Heroes Find Crime if you’d like to handle this more realistically.


14. Characters will almost never use their superpowers and/or supernatural abilities to enrich themselves.  That’d be capitalistic or something.  😉


15.  No matter how unusual/counterintuitive a character’s weakness is, the villain will find out.  Whether you’re vulnerable to intensely rare chunks of your homeworld, marshmallow-and-squid sandwiches or, umm, getting tied up by men, expect (all of) the villains to catch a lucky break.



16.  Main characters are usually more or less invincible.  The henchmen will miss with every shot and the hero will be generally immune to death, anyway.

  • WRITER ONE: Terrorists take over Air Force One and it’s up to the President to kill them!
  • WRITER TWO: What about the Secret Service?
  • WRITER ONE: The terrorists killed them.
  • WRITER TWO: But they can’t kill the President?
  • WRITER ONE: He’s got paratrooper training.
  • WRITER TWO: I think the Secret Service has a lot of training, too.
  • WRITER ONE: Paratrooper. Training.  


17. Wars tend to be neat and painless.  For example, in the few Tom Clancy novels I’ve read, the heroes always accomplished 100% of their objectives in a clean ending. In real life, I think wars since WWII have usually ended inconclusively.  For example, the Korean War and the Gulf War restored the status quo (liberating South Korea and Kuwait) but left Kim il-Sung and Saddam Hussein in power.   If you wanted only realism and not entertainment, I’d recommend WWI’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which is always depressing, mostly horrifying and never fun.  Fortunately, war has become much less lethal since WWI, but it’s still totally unfun.  In my uninformed opinion, I think Jarhead was pretty realistic.  It was a military story with almost no military action.  (The main character never even fires in combat).  It focused on how the soldiers dealt with boredom/waiting and the stress of not knowing whether their girlfriends were cheating on them back home.


18.  The smaller the group, the more dangerous.  If a lone warrior is fighting a group of 50+, he is guaranteed to win.  It doesn’t matter whether he’s a hero or villain.


19. In fiction, hostage situations always end in shootouts. In real life, 95% of hostage standoffs end without a hostage or hostage-taker getting killed.  Most hostage-takers surrender.  PS: Police are leery to initiate violence unless the hostages are in imminent danger.  But most audiences aren’t excited about dynamic inactivity or calculated waiting or other police strategies.


20. Romantic comedies frequently involve behavior that would get you arrested in real life.   No means no.  


21. Love interests are pretty much always physically attractive.  It’s not a meaningful relationship unless the guy looks like Fabio, obviously.  😉


22. Many authors are a bit hesitant to take on interracial relationships.  But your cast is probably small and may only have a few minority characters.  If so, readers can probably guess who will get together with who by matching up the only hot black guy with the only hot black lady.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “22 Ways Fiction is Usually Different than Reality”

  1. Contra Gloveon 10 Jul 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I’d say that superhero fiction fares better than most in terms of “fantasizing” because while romance novels and military fiction look plausible, superhero fiction looks obviously fake, so readers know not to imitate it.

    For that reason, I’m glad my story involves a magical girl on a faraway planet protecting a settlement full of US Southerners against incursions by sharp-toothed oni-like extraterrestrials. Imitate THAT! 🙂

  2. Mynaon 10 Jul 2011 at 5:24 pm

    “16. Authors are a bit hesitant to take on interracial relationships.”
    Ahahaha! I pwn this one! At least half of my cast in any given story is NOT white, and in one of them the albino white dude got paired up with a black girl… it’s actually one of the better couples I’ve written too, despite the obvious and unintentional irony… xDDDD

    Overall though, I love this article, and the one it linked to about how superheroes find crime. I figured Seth would probably get his hands on a police scanner (oh Officer Massri, you’re missing something…) but I hadn’t thought of the other options, so thank you B)

  3. Grenacon 10 Jul 2011 at 7:06 pm

    I’m 12 and I will attempt what I see in books at home =w=b *

    In all seriousness, I really love the linked article about superheroes finding crime. It’s going to really come in handy.

    *Just kidding :’)

  4. Grenacon 10 Jul 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Oooh, forgot to mention that in “Word Girl” there’s this random guy who just runs into the room screaming for help about a crime that is currently happening/has happened. It’s been mentioned that he’s there to get the story moving XD (Somehow relevant to point #11)

    Also, point #15 made me giggle.

  5. B. Macon 10 Jul 2011 at 10:29 pm

    “…a magical girl… protecting a settlement full of US Southerners against incursions by sharp-toothed oni-like extraterrestrials. Imitate THAT!” I went with something similar, although it’s actually a U.S. Southerner protecting a settlement full of possible extraterrestrials* from a magical girl with his sharp teeth. “She started it!”

    *The Floridan only gradually realizes that Georgians are humans and not in fact extraterrestrials. (They got so defensive about being accused of being aliens that he assumed they were hiding something).

  6. Contra Gloveon 11 Jul 2011 at 2:57 am

    Wow, Agent Orange needs to get out more. 🙂

    Also, was this magical girl a Northerner (possibly from New York City?) And why would she attack Georgians?

    Whatever it is, I’m glad we were able to take similar concepts and implement them completely differently.

  7. B. Macon 11 Jul 2011 at 3:34 am

    “Why would she attack Georgians?” Because the West Virginians had mechas.

  8. Contra Gloveon 11 Jul 2011 at 3:44 am

    I see. But that still doesn’t answer where the girl is from (unless that isn’t supposed to be revealed yet.)

  9. Contra Gloveon 11 Jul 2011 at 4:16 am

    Because the West Virginians had mechas.

    I’d love to see that show: Coal Champion Appalachius.

  10. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Jul 2011 at 8:02 pm

    “2. Across the board, when a character lies, somebody will almost always find out.”

    Yeah, I’ve noticed this a lot. In real life, the only way I ever find out secrets is if somebody tells me, and the only way anyone finds out mine is if I tell them. I’ve been maintaining one for about four years now and no one has ever stumbled on it or tricked me into revealing it. That’s very good for me, but it wouldn’t be very dramatic in a book. XD

    “10. Superhero stories almost always gloss over things that would not be very fun.”

    Yeah, plus a comic book/novel has limited space, so there’s not much sense in wasting time on something pointless, unless something seemingly insignificant happens, which is later very important. (Eg: “Hey, didn’t we see that chick in the red jacket on our stakeout? Why has she come to this place, where the mayor was killed? She’s acting pretty shifty…” )

  11. […] 16 Ways Fiction is Usually Different than Reality […]

  12. Lt. Hangon 05 Aug 2011 at 8:51 pm

    And another thing: fictional armies tend to keep their secret projects… well, secret, except when the reveal of said project is story-relevant. Their workers normally don’t ride in the common bus, in identifiable uniform, and wearing a name tag that reads “SECRET PROJECT” under the name.

    Not that it happened in real life… (Last phrase was not a suspiciously specific denial.)

  13. B. Macon 05 Aug 2011 at 9:18 pm

    In the Ironman movie, WTF was Tony Stark doing in Afghanistan?

  14. Contra Gloveon 06 Aug 2011 at 4:54 am

    Regarding #10, Negima, a Japanese comic book series, ignores this one gleefully. Yes, the ten-year-old has 30+ students (because he’s their teacher), and that’s only the start, from what I’ve heard. There are apparently so many characters that it broke TV Tropes’ character page twice.

    However, there’s only one Ken Akamatsu, and chances are that you’re not him, so most authors should take the advice given in #10. 🙂

  15. ZebraCrossingon 07 Feb 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I’m just curious about one of the points there, about characters not being motivated by money- for the first maybe half of my novel, my characters are attempting to smuggle stolen goods across the border. Any idea on how to make this sympathetic?

  16. B. McKenzieon 12 Apr 2015 at 10:03 am

    “I’m just curious about one of the points there, about characters not being motivated by money- for the first maybe half of my novel, my characters are attempting to smuggle stolen goods across the border. Any idea on how to make this sympathetic?” One possibility would be smuggling goods that have been stolen from a criminal. That would probably be more interesting and likable than stealing from a civilian.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply