To Hell With Your Realism

“It’s realistic” doesn’t mean it’s good.

[All the content notes and trigger warnings in the world. It’s about Game of Thrones, so, you know. —SM]


Express even a modicum of distaste for the extra-rapiness of HBO’s Game of Thrones and you’ll inevitably hear this kind of comment: “But there was plenty of rape in the Middle Ages! It’s realistic! Deal with it!”

The same thing happens if you comment on the show’s sometimes cringe-worthy racial politics: “There were no people of color in Medieval Europe! I’m being realistic! Deal with it!”

Let’s put aside for a moment that the second comment isn’t even close to true. Here’s a thought-experiment for all the realism-referees in the audience. Seven percent of girls and 3% of boys in grades 5-8 in the U.S. report having been sexually assaulted. Do you want to see between 3 and 7% of the kids on TV sexually assaulted?

Don’t you dare say you’d prefer not to. Don’t suggest it might be exploitative or simply cruel. Don’t ask if such scenes are necessary to the story. ’Cause if you do, here’s what I’ll say: Shut up. It’s realistic. Deal with it.

Maybe you think my analogy is unfair. Fine. A less incendiary one: Have you ever watched Girls? Have you ever seen Lena Dunham strip and have sex with people? Have you ever complained about her nudity? Well, you can’t. Women who don’t look like supermodels take off their clothes and have sex all the time. So stop whining. It’s realistic. Deal with it.

What I’m saying is that appeals to realism are not applied across the board. I have no statistics on the matter, but it seems they’re often used to shut down criticism that comes from “haters,” a.k.a. marginalized people who hope to bring attention to TV’s backward politics. But when a show dares offend the sensibilities of a certain type of fanboy, suddenly we’re not talking about realism anymore. Suddenly the conversation is about what “people” do and do not want to see on their screens.

Apparently more offensive than rape.

Apparently more offensive than rape.

But appeals to realism aren’t only used to shut down criticism. They’re also used to damn and to praise. This movie is bad because the science is inaccurate. That movie is good because the period details are spot on. This show is bad because the dialogue is heightened. This show is good because there are no plot holes.

It often makes sense to use these arguments. If you’re judging a work of hard sci-fi, it’s reasonable to put a magnifying glass on its technology and physics. If we’re watching a thriller and a plot hole destroys your ability to suspend disbelief, nothing I say is going to make you like the work. Nitpicking TV and movies for fun is Overthinking It‘s raison d’être, so far be it from me to tell you it’s always wrong.

It’s just weird when I enter forums and comment threads about Game of Thrones, and I find myself back in the 1800s, and everyone’s Émile Zola—except this Zola’s applying the rules of naturalism to a story featuring dragons. It’s like everyone got together before the first episode and decided Westeros was a real place and its history real history, and any naysayers are idiots ignorant of the Way Things Were.

It’s bizarre.

It’s equally bizarre when these would-be Zolas apply their rules to works of surrealism. Take those who have burned my dear Hannibal with a dire brand reading “unrealistic.” Unrealistic?! This brazenly surrealistic bit of Grand Guignol?! Why, I never expected this of Bryan Fuller! I’d better renounce my fandom.

When did appeals to realism become a trump card in pop culture criticism? And when did we agree that a certain kind of Internet commenter is the final arbiter of what is real and what is not?

I have some unverifiable theories.

1. Capitalism did it.


Today we’re living in a world where practicality is fetishized and anything dubbed impractical is anathema. You majored in engineering? You’re a hero. You majored in art history? You’re the worst, and you deserve to starve. It’s why half the guys I know say things like, “Oh, I don’t read fiction. I only read Steve Jobs biographies and The Wall Street Journal.” (They might also watch Shark Tank.) In today’s world, fiction is frivolous. Non-fiction is practical and might help you achieve financial success.

In such an environment is it any wonder that we treat works of fiction like clockwork machines and unrealistic elements as broken widgets? When someone criticizes our favorite story, we defend our enjoyment by saying the work is almost as realistic as non-fiction, and therefore it is practical and worthy. I actually met a guy once who justified his enjoyment of 24 by saying it taught him invaluable lessons about how the world really works. No wonder procedurals are so popular. They seem realistic and educational, even when they are not.

Even watching a fantasy like Game of Thrones can be framed as a practical pastime. Though few watch the show to learn to conjure a shadow baby, people do seem to take life lessons from Tywin and Littlefinger, thinking them masters of realpolitik. Act like Tywin or Littlefinger in the office and you might manipulate your way into a promotion, and you can justify your underhandedness by muttering, “In the game of raises, you win or you die.”

2. Lit snobs did it.


Maester Pycelle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Although literary fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, you wouldn’t know it from the literati who decry science fiction and fantasy. We’ve all read a billion articles about how genre fiction sucks—well, unless it’s Latin American, in which case it’s Magic Realism, and the realism part makes it better.

The lit-fic world seems to be slowly changing (thanks, Michael Chabon, et. al) but I doubt my sword-and-sorcery manuscript will be welcomed in an MFA workshop any time soon. You even see this anti-genre snobbery when major outlets discuss YA literature. The dystopias and supernatural romances are raking in the cash, but only John Green’s works of realism get labeled Actual Literature.

So if you want Game of Thrones to snag some literary cred, you have to call it realistic. You say it’s not like those other fantasies with their silly zombies and wizards. Game of Thrones has realistic zombies and wizards, and they’re barely even there! Plus women get raped a lot, so it’s as miserably naturalistic as Zola’s Germinal. And miserable reality is what good art is all about.

3. Sexism did it.


Culturally, feelings and irrationality are considered feminine, while coldness and logic are masculine. Women make things up in their silly little heads, which are clouded by hormones and lady-subjectivity. Men are objective enough to see Reality. This might be why we believe more “realistic” shows (even if they are works of fantasy) are more manly than, and therefore superior to, “unrealistic” shows (even if, like soap operas, they ostensibly take place in the real world).

Since you won’t believe me unless I cite a white guy with a fancy French name, Jacques Derrida backs me up. According to his theory of phallogocentrism, in Western societies, determinateness, which is coded as masculine, is privileged over indeterminateness, which is coded as feminine.

To put it in pop culture terms, it’s kind of like the difference between hard and soft sci-fi. In hard sci-fi, scientific laws and definitions are knowable, logical, clear, and unchanging – determinate. Hard sci-fi is believed to be quite masculine. Soft sci-fi is less scientific (at least, according to our contemporary understanding of science, which might change tomorrow), and it’s more concerned with nebulous concepts like culture. In soft sci-fi there isn’t necessarily one Truth, Reality, or Logic. Definitions and distinctions might be blurred. Soft sci-fi is therefore perceived as less rigorous, girlier, and generally inferior to the hard stuff.

Of course I made a chart.

Of course I made a chart.

(Side-note: Derrida would say in Western societies everything hard is considered superior to anything soft, because boners. He’d also say the very urge to divide sci-fi into the strict binary of “hard” and “soft” is a symptom of phallologocentrism, which places high value on dichotomies like masculine/feminine, logic/emotion, and science/humanities.)

When it comes to other artistic genres, naturalism is harder, while surrealism is softer. Naturalism is premised on the notion that we can know reality well enough to mime it in our art; the setting of a naturalistic work must be determinate. Though filed in the fantasy TV section of Amazon, Game of Thrones can be considered naturalistic enough, because it is based on real history, and its few, rarely-seen fantastical elements supposedly follow strict, determinable rules. Viewers may not know what those rules are exactly, but we assume they exist. We couldn’t make Game of Thrones RPGs and board games if there weren’t hard and fast rules – a fantasy science, if you will – and these rules make the show more manly and realistic than works of soft SFF or surrealism.

(Personally, I’m not convinced the magic in GoT follows any rules. If there are rules, they seem to be changing. I’m interested to see what viewers say if and when they find out this world is softer than they imagined. Will audiences revolt, as they did at the end of LOST and Battlestar Galactica? I can’t wait to find out.)

It's George R.R. Martin!

George R.R. Martin

The trouble is, these three theories fail to answer an important question: If realism is so admired nowadays, why is no one watching the most realistic shows and movies? With its mumblecorish dialogue, understated acting, racial diversity, and subtle humor, Looking is one of the most naturalistic shows on TV. I don’t know a single other person who watches it. I don’t think I know anyone who’s even heard of it, which is sad. It’s very good.

The documentary-style Friday Night Lights? Canceled. Had to be picked up by DirecTV so it could finish its final season. Parenthood might be coming back next year, but a 1.3 rating in the key demo for its season finale ain’t great. Not when the pulpier Blacklist got a 2.7 and NCIS a 2.5.

As for movies, well, I don’t need to tell you. How many people saw Before Midnight, and how many people saw Captain America? We’re still judging superhero movies based on their realism (a friend recently raved about The Winter Soldier by calling it “barely fantastical—it could happen in real life!”) but when it comes to watching actually-realistic movies about real people dealing with real conflicts in the real world, audiences are nowhere to be found.

So here’s what I want.

I want the Internet to stop pretending it actually cares about realism as a genre. You like dragons and superheroes and pulp. It’s okay. It’s awesome. Own it.

I want people to stop acting like realism is the most important criterion to use when judging pop culture. Character consistency matters, too. Emotions matter. Artistry matters.

I want people to stop applying the rules of naturalism to stories that aren’t trying to be naturalistic. I hate to say you’re watching wrong, but you’re watching wrong.

Most importantly, I want people to stop justifying sexism, racism, and general misanthropy with appeals to realism. We never said we want to see fewer rapes in Game of Thrones because they’re unrealistic, so arguments on these grounds are illogical. And the next time you start to shut a conversation down by saying, “It’s realistic” or “It’s not realistic,” maybe take a second to ask yourself, “So the f*** what?”

29 Comments on “To Hell With Your Realism”

  1. Wenyip #

    On some occasions: I think that a lot of the time, when people say something is ‘unrealistic’, they simply mean, ‘this work has failed to convince me to suspend my disbelief.’ This obviously depends on the person and their background (whether they have a lot of exposure to, eg. fantasy/SF) and on the quality and intention of the work. However, this interpretation doesn’t apply to the reverse, praising something for being ‘realistic.’

    On the points about hard and soft magic systems/worldbuilding: I refer you to Brandon Sanderson’s ‘First Law’: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” (His own blog post on it: ).

    Sanderson’s own Mistborn series is a brilliant example of a fully conceived and integrated magic system. And you’ll note he lists ASoIaF as an example of soft magic – no one really understands how it works. Which is fine, because none of the heroes actually use it. The point is: having a harder (though not ‘rigid’) magic system isn’t anything to do with sexism, it’s just good writing. At least if you intend to have your heroes use magic to resolve anything. You simply can’t tell the same stories (well) with soft magic that you can with hard magic.

    I’d also point out an example of very gritty fantasy absolutely beloved by internet commenters – Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen – which has probably the softest, least consistent and most convenient magic system I’ve ever read. Which leads me to the conclusion that the point you’re trying to make isn’t about ‘soft’ vs ‘hard’ magic, it’s about gritty vs less-gritty writing. ‘Gritty’ books and shows do tend to have a lot of rape and torture and ‘realism’ – in the sense that realism means “a rather negative view of human nature.” And I think gritty, or “darker and edgier”, is what sells at the moment…. which leads to a good question for a paper – why do people find grittiness more believable?


    • BastionofLight #

      As a counter-example to Sanderson’s First Law, I propose Star Wars: A New Hope.

      Prior to the climax of the movie, the Force has not had predictable utility. Vader chokes a man, Obi-Wan mind controls a Stormtrooper, Luke almost senses a robot, and Obi-Wan senses the destruction of Alderaan. Then, based on that established non-pattern, the climax of the movie requires us to believe that the Force also helps Luke shoot a proton torpedo. While the Force is not very well understood by the audience, or even, it appears, by the characters themselves, (to the point where Han simply does not believe in it), I am not aware of any common critique of Luke using the Force in that instance.

      Similarly, a Star Trek solution is just using soft-magic technology, and I am unaware of anyone who says that detracts from the show.


      • Wenyip #

        Actually, the ability to use to Force to gain some sort of superhuman perception if you ‘let go’ is probably the only Force ability that is properly set up and explained in A New Hope. We have the whole lightsaber training sequence on the Falcon, where Luke learns to blindly deflect blaster bolts using his Force senses when he lets go. And that is the one ability he uses later on: to sense the right moment to shoot the photon torpedo. It works in a narrative sense because the audience understands that the Force can do that.

        As for Star Trek: as far as I’m aware, concerns about the extremely soft and convenient nature of the science are one of the most common complaints about it, especially in TNG and Voyager. You know – ‘reversing the polarity’ or ‘modifying the deflector array’ will somehow conveniently solve any problem (except for the one a few years later when they forgot they did that). It works sometimes, when the real focus of the episode is on other stuff, like resolving a cultural, ethical or personal problem. But other times, when we’re actually supposed to engage with a scientific problem or a fight with an enemy, the soft science ending is very convenient and unsatisfying.


    • An Inside Joke #

      I had similar thoughts re: the suspension of disbelieve. Complaints of whether or not a show are “realistic” seem to me to fall more into the question of “Is this realistic given what’s already been set up by the world?” I don’t tend to care much for arguments about a show or movie’s innate realism, but I do think there’s a valid criticism for complaints like “This character’s behavior isn’t realistic given the character traits that have already been established” or “I don’t believe this plot development given the way it violates what’s already been set up previously.” Those are realism arguments built more on the story’s inherent reality as opposed to comparing the story’s world to the real world.

      As for the gritty vs. not-gritty, I have to assume this is a cultural response to the more light-hearted entertainment that was made in the 80’s and 90’s. After all, the Golden Age of Television seemed to start roughly parallel with the creation of grittier, racier cable TV (then spread to Network TV). These things tend to come in waves, so I wonder if, come the 2020’s and 2030’s, if the cultural pendulum will swing the other way and the most respected television will by light-hearted and whimsical, and people will look at modern hits with the same disdain we look at the cheesy shows of twenty years ago.


    • Connor Moran #

      That Sanderson essay is an incredible example of exactly the kind of Hard/Soft dichotomy that Shana discusses. It purports to be describing two different equally valid kinds of fantasy (hard and soft). But in our cultural context, these are not neutral terms. And he, as a professed lover of “hard” fantasy, deigns to help out the “soft” fantasy writers in making their books work using his Rule. He attempts to constrain “soft” fantasy to fantasy that uses magic as a sort of set dressing, not something that resolves conflict. It’s decoration not a tool. It’s a womanish pillowcase, not a manly gun. It might not be exactly what you would call “sexism” (I might) but it’s rooted in a very gendered, very binary way of looking at the world.

      It’s a very compelling construction because it appeals to that need to categorize, gender, and define. It also falls apart upon any closer inspection.

      He gives the example of Harry Potter as a 50/50 hardness story. There’s a lot of rules but sometimes they break. But given his thesis about problem-solving, it’s really important when the rules change or break and when they are consistent. And here’s the thing–the rulesy magic we see the characters do in class is almost always set dressing. From the first book on, it’s almost always weird and unexplained things that resolve the climax (Voldemort can’t touch Harry because of the love of his mother in 1, a sword falls out of the Sorting Hat in 2, Harry and Voldemort’s wands do that weird connecty thing in 4, Harry Potter dies for our sins or whatever in 7). There are exceptions (the crux moment in 3 flows pretty naturally from the established rules of time travel and Patronuses). Even these, though, often have a softishness (it’s emotion that makes a Patronus work). But certainly if you are looking to support the thesis that good fantasy should only solve problems with magic the audience understands, Harry Potter is a terrible example.

      Looking beyond his examples, let’s look at The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, which I recently finished and which immediately leapt into my top 5 fantasy novels. It’s basically as soft as soft magic can get. We understand there’s a unicorn who has some powers of healing and to give life to a forest. Also, people don’t see her as a unicorn. Except some people do. We have Schmendrick the Magician, who is a failure at doing “real” magic, except he kind of seems to do a lot of stuff that seems magic–sometimes even on purpose. And at one key moment he does real magic. At a second key moment, he does it again, and then he is a real Magician with almost unlimited powers. The second key moment is basically the climax and while it doesn’t fully resolve the problems, it certainly resolves one key problem.

      How do these stories work, without becoming that most horrid of writing horrors (according, at least, to the biggest advocates of Hardness), the “deus ex machina?” Well, the reason these stories work is because they don’t subscribe to as constrained a definition of “problem” or “conflict” as Sanderson appears to. The Last Unicorn isn’t about who would win in a fight, a Unicorn or a Red Bull. It’s about emotions and loss and the problems that come from getting what you want. Harry Potter at its best isn’t about who’s better at pseudo-latin, Harry or Voldemort. It’s about love and friendship and sacrifice. These problems are solved in a satisfying way because their conclusions are emotionally satisfying, not because they represent a win in the game of magic according to a well-defined magic system.

      Frankly, the phrase “magic system” makes me break out in hives. It belongs to a school of game-influenced fantasy that is all about winning fights. It’s fine for people who are into it, which even includes me when I’m in the right mood! But when it tries to tell us how we should read and write all fantasy, that’s when I get my back up.


      • Wenyip #

        No, you’re importing gender into things which aren’t inherently gendered, and then saying that therefore there is some form of gender discrimination. Take Patronuses: your argument that they are ‘soft magic’ relies on the fact that they need emotion. Whereas I see that as a simple rule: to use Expecto Patronem, you must be able to concentrate on something happy. They’re actually a perfect example of hard magic. Later, the use of Patronuses is adapted to be used as messengers rather than weapons-against-Dementors, but that never violates the rules of how they work. Only if you say: ’emotions are feminine, and soft magic is feminine, therefore emotions are soft magic’, do you get that conclusion. I disagree with both premises: hard magic isn’t masculine; soft magic isn’t feminine; logic and reason aren’t masculine; emotion isn’t feminine.

        And the same applies to the rest of Harry Potter. The love shield from Harry’s mother is fairly soft at the end of the first book (though we have been told that there is a mystery in how he survived), but after that, it operates in a mostly predictable way. And definitely most of the times they use magic to solve a problem (be it minor or major), it happens in a way that the author has explained that that magic works. I’m not saying that HP is very hard, but we do get introduced to most of the magic and have its abilities and limits explained to us before it’s used in a significant way. The final conclusion is perhaps more personal (though still set up in advance), but certainly a lot of the problems they face along the way are resolved using well-understood rules of magic.

        And yes, I agree that there are different kinds of ‘conflict’ or ‘problem.’ My point was that some of them cannot be resolved in a satisfying way using soft magic. A personal, cultural or ethical problem possibly can be solved using soft magic… but even then, you don’t want to be using magic to actually solve the problem… magic is best used simply to externalise the solution onto the outside world (if putting it that way makes sense). And even then, using a well-understood magic system will frequently enhance the satisfaction of a well-resolved problem of that sort, rather than diminish it.


        • Fred #

          Yes, there are different kinds of conflicts, but it seems to me that the only kind where Sanderson’s Law actually holds true is procedural conflicts: scenarios where the primary dramatic question is “how will the hero solve this seemingly insoluble problem?”. In these situations the dramatic payoff comes from watching the hero triumph by using well-defined (but often overlooked or forgotten) elements of the narrative universe in a creative way. If the audience has not been properly primed by a clear understanding of how those elements function within the universe, they will not experience that satisfying “oh, of course!” moment where it all clicks.

          These types of situations are staples of fantasy and sci-fi, and they can make for some amazing stories. These tales generally involve the archetype of the clever hero who triumphs by his wits – Odysseus, Aladdin, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (to give him just a few of his names). But there are many, many other types of narrative in which the primary conflict to be resolved is emotional, moral, or conceptual rather than procedural. In such cases the author can leave the “rules” of magic vague and unstated, relying on the reader’s instinctive familiarity with the underlying mythic logic. The scene in The Goblet of Fire where Harry and Voldemort’s wands link during their duel is a perfect example: nothing we have thus far learned about the “rules” of this universe’s magic would allow us to predict this result, but we don’t care because it resonates with the underlying narrative surrounding the mysterious connection between these two characters. Then Voldemort’s wand begins to “backfire”, discharging ghostly shades of its countless crimes – again, there is no reason to expect this particular result, but it’s a perfect illustration of the story’s themes of the persistence of the past and the way our identities are defined by our actions.


  2. Connor Moran #

    Great article! I’m glad you put the hard vs. soft chart in an article–I believe you or someone else made a similar point at one point in a comment and I was trying without success to find it a few months ago.


  3. Crystal #

    Must these debates always break down into realistic vs. heightened? There is room in my heart for The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games, and I don’t particularly find one more realistic than the other.

    Cynicism, darkness, misanthropy, misogyny, and grittiness are all coded as realism. I think this was discussed on the GoT recap a few weeks ago–the idea of naive cynicism. But why are people quicker to assume people being awful is more realistic than people being wonderful? Is Breaking Bad really more realistic than The Mindy Project? They are both wildly heightened. And they are both awesome in their own way.


  4. FCDruid #

    Of all the great nonrealist works produced over the years, are we really using Game of Thrones as the icon of excellence?


    • FCDruid #

      Folks, this is what happens when you read the title and opening image macro and not the actual article.


  5. Jihgfed Pumpkinhead #

    Great article–on point and engagingly written.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head (ow) when you associate the “realism” people are looking for with phallologocentrism.

    When people who admire those works you cite (Captain America, Game of Thrones) praise their realism, what they are really praising isn’t realism, but rationalism. They want a reasonable kind of fiction, where characters are well-defined and predictable, plots are clear and inevitable except where blind chance (which is unemotional and therefore allowable) intervenes, and, most importantly, the world follows certain strict and discernible laws.

    This is why people who praise the realism of, say, hard sci-fi are talking at cross-purposes with the people who praise the realism of mumbled and indistinct dialogue.


  6. MEGR #

    I really hate the association the post makes between objections to plot holes objections to lack of realism. It is true that reality doesn’t have any plot holes but good stories shouldn’t have them either. I think the objection to plot holes comes from a different place the objection to unrealistic story elements. If a story has too many plot holes it ceases to be a story and becomes a barely associated sequence of events, which effects the quality of the story in way that unrealistic elements does not. It’s not a story is good because of it’s lack of plot holes, rather it’s that a story cannot be good unless it has few enough plot holes to form a cognizant structure. There are some stories which lack that structure but it seems irrelevant to talk about plot holes in those cases since the story is not aiming to construct a plot in a way which can have holes.

    I think objections to a story based on realism are justifications for disliking things that the objector has already decided to dislike. Obviously it makes no difference to the quality of a story whether it could actually happen in this world. Whether it could actually happen in it’s own world is a different matter that I think the article unjustly lumps in with judgements in quality based the first criteria.

    I this goes back to something I wrote a while ago about the three kinds of suspension of disbelief:

    There’s internal suspension of disbelief which is violated when the internal logic of the movie is violated. For instance if it a major plot point that the ship can’t go to warp when in orbit around a planet and then the ship goes into orbit when around a planet without explaining how. I think this kind of suspension of disbelief is entirely the responsibility of the movie and it is a failing of a work if it violates this rule.

    There’s external suspension of disbelief where the audience applies the rules of the real universe to the fictional universe. This can be violated by narrative imperative (things that the story has to do in order to be a good or coherent story) or the central premise of the story (complaints such as “giants could not exist because of the laws of physics” fall into this category). When it goes to certain level it passes into global suspension of disbelief. It partially depends on what the level of deviation from reality the audience is willing to tolerate. It is the responsibility of the movie to make it’s deviations from reality work within a framework of reality that the audience is familiar with. At some point if the movie tells you there are giants you just have to accept that the in the books reality giants are possible.

    There’s global suspension of disbelief, which I think deserves a different category then external suspension belief because it violates our expectations of how reality functions at a more basic level. A complaint in this category would be how a group of soldiers stand in a circle and fire inward to kill a target, this would of course, be really stupid, and not something soldiers could or would do in reality. it is important to note that if there is a reason for the violation of reality (such as the soldiers being very stupid and totally untrained, or suicidal) it does not violate this rule of expectation.

    I think people often confuse the three different kinds of suspension of disbelief. For instance there are people who say we should apply the responsibilities of the audience in external suspension to the other kinds of violations. And there are people who completely ignore the responsibility of the audience to accept a certain amount of deviation from reality in the case of external suspension of disbelief.


    • MEGR #

      I now realize how much of this comment was taken from OTIP episode 29. I had forgotten where it had come from and assumed it was my own, which is kind of depressing.


  7. Seminymous Coward #

    I don’t think anyone not stuffed with straw thinks realism alone is enough for a work to be good. You might find people arguing it’s necessary, but I doubt you’ll find many claiming it’s sufficient. Being interesting, for example, is also highly useful to works seeking mass appeal.

    The points raised about “realism” coding for rationality or internal consistency are both excellent and well-stated. Likewise for the distinguishing of realism and minimization of plot holes.

    Not mentioning “realism” as a supposed virtue of the AAA military FPS was an oversight, in my opinion. It’s a well-covered area, but it ties in perfectly with the disdain for realism-as-defense-mechanism of this article. It’s also full of punching bags like substituting for depth with desaturation, grimness, and violence.

    In any case, it seems like this article puts much too much effort into responding to a lazy, half-formed argument. If this were an answer to some far better developed theory of realism-as-literary-virtue, this might be justified. As the opposing side is presented, this article addresses an argument that the question “Why does that matter?” could soundly defeat.

    P.S. It would also have been acceptable to cite a white guy with a fancy German name. Also, it’s not entirely clear to me that Derrida’s family name is ethnically French. Did you classify “Jacques” as fancy?


  8. LSF #

    How would people feel about Sanderson’s rule if it was formulated “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the AUTHOR (but not necessarily the reader) understands said magic.” I think that works a lot better, and it allows for works like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire (or The Sandman, for that matter) to be judged more favorably.


    • Connor Moran #

      Hmm. The thing with Sanderson’s rule is that it’s at least kind of testable. You can look at fantasy books that are generally regarded as effective storytelling and see if the rule holds up. I happen to feel like it doesn’t, but obviously there is disagreement on this point.

      If we make it based on what the author knows, there’s no way to evaluate it other than guesswork. I’ve personally been complimented on the “magic system” of a story I wrote where the only rule for magic I knew going into the story was that wizards can do anything unless it’s funnier that they can’t.

      If I were to propose a rule, it would be that “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how emotionally satisfying that solution is.” But frankly that’s basically a tautology (“emotionally satisfying stories are emotionally satisfying!”)


    • Wenyip #

      I disagree entirely. An author’s knowledge means nothing, in the context of a work, unless it’s communicated effectively to the readers. It may be that GRRM has formulated entire codices on each branch of magic in ASoIaF, but until he tells us at least some of that, it’s going to remain a very soft magic system. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind, because none of the protagonists (with one or two exceptions) are able to use magic at all, let alone to resolve conflicts. The exceptions are: the Stark kids who can sense via their direwolves – this works fine, because it’s pretty simple and straightforward, and not at all OP; and the magic used by Bran and Bloodraven, which, we assume, Bran is going to learn about on-screen, giving the reader the same amount of knowledge that Bran himself gets.

      And, in reply to Connor, I think you’re conflating “effective work as a whole” with what the rule is actually talking about, “effective resolution of a conflict (using magic).” There’s no doubting that you can have very good works that, for whatever reason, have magic in them… but in which the use of magic to resolve conflicts is unsatisfying. It may be that the magic is merely an externalization of internal or emotional conflict, or that the true challenge for the heroes was in acquiring the magic rather than finally using it, or any number of things. But what these things are doing are removing the use of magic from the real resolution of the conflict… which doesn’t necessarily make them inconsistent with the rule.

      I’d also point out that Sanderson himself doesn’t think his Laws (he has 3, btw: ) are hard and fast rules. They’re more… rules of thumb that tend to make writing better, and which can be broken if breaking them *does* make a work better.


      • Connor Moran #

        The point that every part of an effective work is not necessarily effective is fair enough. I would say, however, that Harry Potter grabbing Quirrell/Voldemort’s face and making him fry; Yeline Darr ascending to godhood when she is stabbed in the heart next to the Stone of Earth; Gandalf declaring that “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass.” (gibberish to the reader); Ged speaking the name of the shadow; Prospero making Ferdinand his servant “lest too light wooing make prize light”; Ben Holiday becoming the Paladin; Aslan cracking the stone table and returning from the dead; Puck making Demetrius love Helena; Schmendrick turning the unicorn back to her true self; Merlin coming back from the dead as “a dream to some, a nightmare to others” &c., &c., are all emotionally satisfying instances of magic not previously explained to the reader used effectively by excellent storytellers to resolve conflict.

        Sanderson characterizes his guideline as a “Law.” The capital letter (which, intriguingly, fades out in the second and third essays) and tone indicate that he means a law in the scientific sense rather than the legal sense. A law in the scientific sense must be based on an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence. I don’t think the evidence is there. At best, Sanderson expresses a preference and I would even challenge whether he is accurately stating his own preferences–he approvingly cites works that defy his Law (The Balrog scene is totally awesome precisely because we don’t know what a Balrog is, really, and we don’t know the full extent of Gandalf’s power, really. Both the problem and the resolution are vague, but that’s what makes it so magical).


        • Wenyip #

          On the contrary, I find the Balrog scene in Khadum-Dum to be distinctly underwhelming and unsatisfying. Tolkein puts the Fellowship in a situation whence they cannot escape from hordes of goblins… only to be freed from that, not by their own efforts, but the convenient appearance of a greater menace… which stick around for a page or two before falling down a hole and out of the novel. It’s effective at a couple of things: demonstrating that there is further depth to the lore, and briefly showing Gandalf as a wizard (rather than a knowledgable, but curmudgeonly, old man). And certainly it’s a way of creating a major problem: the loss of Gandalf himself, which eventually leads to the breaking of the fellowship. But the problem and solution are so quick and vague that it is distinctly unsatisfying in a narrative sense – as a resolution to getting through Moria, as a resolution to the Balrog (why did it have to happen that way? Presumably Gandalf knew, but never tells us), and as a way to accomplish the loss of Gandalf.

          Compare that to Frodo and Sam journeying through Mordor. They have to accomplish everything themselves, using only a few magical artifacts with known powers (though occasionally unexpected effects), and therefore succeeding mostly through their wits, through physical efforts, and through efforts of will and friendship. It’s emotionally satisfying because the heroes accomplish it themselves, in a manner that the audience can (generally, at least) understand. We understand exhaustion and fear and friendship and wanting to give up… and we also understand walking/running long distance, carrying heavy weights, being tortured and so on. In fact, if I were to amend Sanderson’s First Law, it would be “An author’s ability to solve conflict is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands the means of solving said conflict.” Most of the time, that isn’t at issue, because things like emotions and physical exertion are reasonably understandable to most people. Magic, however, differs from story to story, and needs to be demonstrated or explained anew each time… which is why it merits a law.

          Certainly, there are examples of unexplained magic being involved in a satisfying resolution, and you’ve given some there. But in many cases, as I said before, the magic isn’t really the resolution: for instance, if the hero has to find a magical object (or get it to a particular place) on his own efforts, then that’s the real conflict that needs to be resolved. Using the magic once found (or arrived) is just the reward, if you will, for having resolved the story’s real conflict. Harry only touches Quirrell after he and his friends successfully navigate a series of tasks using skills/knowledge/items/character traits they’ve obtained throughout the book. The final act of touching/burning Quirrell/Voldy is minor next to all that… imagine if that had been the only thing he’d had to do; it would not have been satisfying. And it works because it was the first book with a young Harry; that sort of simple, convenient success via unexplained/unexpected means can only be used very sparingly. It happens perhaps 2 other times to such effect in the 7 books.

          I agree that “Law” is somewhat exaggerated terminology, but one must allow people small foibles.


  9. The Other Hand #

    Yeah, and while we’re at it, why does there have to be so much murder in Game of Thrones? Why does it have to be all about war? Why did that one guy have to get flayed and castrated? Why does that dwarf guy have to be a dwarf? Why do they swear so much? Why all the suffering? All of those things offend me, and it doesn’t matter what kind of story the creators want to tell, and none of them should be allowed on television.


    • AlexB #

      Oh grow up. No one is saying those things shouldn’t be allowed on television, and no one is saying that “finding something offensive” would be the basis for forbidding anything. ”
      There’s the question of adapting the source material, and then there’s the question of justifying the choices one makes when straying from said material. In this instance it’s hard not to see these changes as exploitative.


  10. AlexB #

    Great piece Shana. I imagine this was prompted by that god-awful Youtube comment on the episode 5 recap?
    To my mind the most annoying thing about the extra-rapey-with-a-side-of-rapey Craster’s keep scenes is that they’re an invention of the show’s writing team. I’m all for interpretation rather than slavish adaptation but in this case you have to wonder WHY they chose to do it like that. Especially since it’s not like we needed extra manifestations of how evil and gross those rogue Crows are to heighten the payoff of them getting killed later on – pretty sure the whole killing Mormont thing had already taken care of that…


    • Crystal #

      I don’t see why it matters that they added the rapey scenes to the show. They wouldn’t be less exploitative if they were already in the book. People bring this us a lot, but what difference does it make really? I wouldn’t object to the Jaime rape scene less if it were clearly rape in the book instead of a questionably consensual thing.

      It weakens the argument to object based on “this wasn’t in the book.” Why can’t it be enough that the sheer amount of sexual violence and violence against women is so high? Or that some of the rape scenes are totally extraneous to the plot? Or that they are played for titilation?


      • AlexB #

        Oh sure, I completely agree with you! Sorry if my post was unclear, I wasn’t implying that I’m OK with exploitative rape scenes as long as they’re in the source material.

        What I’m confused and annoyed by is this: given the *already high* amount of sexual violence in the source material, why O why would you add *even more* of it in the first place, and why in such an exploitative/titillating fashion?
        Does that make sense?


  11. Opellulo #

    The fundamental division lies, IMHO, not in realism but in power fantasy fulfillmment.

    GoT, like any other successfull mainstream show, dwells in this idea: it’s all about power, even the title describe this! So, in this “game”, power fetishes can go wild to sickening extremes… Like when you realize that EVERY female character in the show was threatened, attempted or phisically raped!
    But hey!, there are “strong” female characters: like the Khaalesi or Cersei, women whole only powers are… Their children! (Who they use badly because they don’t listen their creepy paternally figures).

    Exiting gender dynamics the things does not improve: love is reduced to sex, bickering and possession (Tirion/Shae, Jon/Ygritte, Cersei/Jamie, Robb/the character played by Chaplin’s grand-daughter whose name i dont’ remember because is simply a device to cut fast a secondary plot).

    But hey! International success because in these hard times everyone loves power fantasies!

    P.S. Do you want to cut the debate over Girls? Simply replace Lena Dunham with a more “traditionally good-looking” actress, the show would be emptied but i can safely bet the viewers would skyrock!


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