Believability vs. Realism: Not the Same

First, forgive me for my unannounced hiatus. Wearing a lot of hats here and getting ready for another book release as well as myriad other things. That’s also the reason why The Forest is behind on its release though it has been finished for some time. I’ll be getting that posted as soon as I can.

Being back in the saddle again, it came to mind while thinking about my next post the way we write our stories. As creators of fiction, novelists are crafters. We build stories, fill those stories with characters, adventure, intrigue, and many other aspects. The goal is to draw the reader into your world and create a desire in their hearts to stay there as long as possible. There are many different tools we use to do this and two of those tools are realism and believability.

Now, some of you may say that these two elements are the same. You’d be wrong. One lends itself to ther other. They are partners but not synonyms. This is important to understand because many writers often mix this up and it can effect your writing process.

Let’s begin with realism, the lesser of the two. Realism is basing an aspect of your story in cold, hard facts. Some authors do this more than others. The one that comes to mind immediately is Tom Clancy. His research was copious and extensive for his novels.They were just littered with the facts of the military, political workings and espionage.

This all lent to the greater of the two, believability. Understand, Clancy wrote fiction. That means that the story really didn’t happen. But because of the realism that he included in his stories, we believe that it could happen.

Realism gives your story credibility. Every story needs this. Realism is the tendons and muscles throughout your story’s body. Even in high fantasy, like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, certain things correlate to how things happen in reality: how to shoot an arrow, ride a horse, wield a sword—all of those things work in the same way they do in what we call the “real world”.

However, just throwing some realism into a story doesn’t automatically make it believable. Those realism elements must be placed in the story in such a way that the reader doesn’t question their use. This is accomplished primarily through consistency.

For instance, if your protagonist carries a back up Walther PPK .380 ACP stainless steel handgun in an ankle holster (which has a six-round magazine) then pops off eight rounds at the bad guys while in hot pursuit, your reader is going to balk, especially if they’re a gun enthusiast. Having a PPK in an ankle holster is an aspect of realism since the gun is only six-inches long. But all aspects must be consistent so after shot six, they need to pop the clip and reload.

This even works with abstract fantasy elements. If, for example, a blade glows blue when an orc is nearby like in the case with Sting, Bilbo’s short sword/dagger in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, then when an orc is around, the reader would expect it to glow blue. Not yellow, not orange, not green. Blue. Now, this would have nothing to do with realism because there are no such things as orcs and short swords don’t glow blue for any reason. But because this ‘fact’ had been established as a part of Tolkien’s world, it has to be consistent in order to be believable.

Realism vs. believability is not an either or proposition. You need both to create a story people will enjoy and remember.

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