Many years ago, in another life, I was a computer game programmer and had the incredible privilege to work closely for several years with the genius designer (and incredibly nice man) Sid Meier. Sid created classics such as Pirates! and F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service and Railroad Tycoon and, most popular of all, Civilization. He strove in all his games to have them as realistic as possible but had a rule which I paraphrase as “never let realism get in the way of enjoyment.”
He was speaking about games but he could just as easily have been talking about the subject of this article. People read fiction for enjoyment just as they play games to take a break. That is the main reason for both, in my opinion. Certainly “broaden the mind” and all that can be argued but when really, it is enjoyment.
So, considering the case of Realism versus Enjoyment, I decided there were two similar but distinct ways of looking at the question. Does the realism someone puts into a book get in the way of enjoyment and, conversely, does the lack of realism in a story detract from the enjoyment?
I grew up watching lots and lots of westerns on television, before we became too sophisticated to enjoy such fare. (Pity, too, because Matt Dillon could kick the butt of just about every hero on the small screen today.) The cliché slam against many of those TV and movie oaters was the six-gun that never ran out of bullets. It would not likely have become such a cliché if it had not happened enough to notice and to become such a popular slam, it had to be distracting. In that regard, the lack of realism was a definite negative to enjoyment.
But another equally unrealistic action that happened in many tight spot was the incredible skill with which the hero was able to pull his gun and shoot the pistol out of the opposition’s hand. Such incredible aim was useful in stopping the combat while letting the baddy live to rue the day he became a skunk. Was this a negative? It is 50-50 on this one, to me, for as a kid I was suitably impressed but as an adult I likely would have frowned but let it go.
Today’s action dramas usually do not suffer from either ailment anymore. Guns usually have clips of unspecified number of bullets so shooting 8 or 9 times does not matter and the speed of changing a clip not only does not take away from the story, it enhances it with the hero slamming the new clip in and rechambering a round dramatically. And most professionals are trained, so we are told, to shoot “center mass” which puts the rat down for good.
One break from reality that I see in action movies and sometimes read in action novels that tends to irk me is when the hero, out and about doing normal business, is suddenly in the middle of a major shoot-out and, after emptying his clip, reaches into his pocket for another clip. And then soon goes after a third. Lots of shooting and lots of action and lots of testosterone and lots of fun. But I invariably have to ask myself how many clips did this guy pack in the morning? Does he normally go out loaded down with metal like that? How does he sit with two or three magazine clips in his back pocket?
In the Sixties, martial arts movies were growing in popularity and seeing on television someone breaking a thick board or a brick with his hand was novel and fun to watch. This quickly evolved into the secret agent being trained in hand-to-hand combat and able to take out an opponent with just himself as the weapon. It also led to many a case of unrealistic action on both big and small screens and, of course, in the pages of a good spy thriller. A quick karate chop to the back of the neck could knock out the strongest guard or kill him if the chopper was a bad guy.
Nowadays you almost never see such a scene but it has been replaced with two other actions which can sometimes make a reader squint in wonder. The first is the head butt where the good guy smashes his forehead into the face of the bad guy, dazing the victim considerably. I’ll grant you that will sting the baddie like the dickens but how often do you see the good guy rubbing his forehead and grimacing? I would 'cause that’s gotta hurt. The second is the attacker grabbing the victim’s head from behind and doing a quick twist to the side, ostensibly taking it more than the vertebrae allows and killing the guy instantly. Is this possible? If so, how much strength would it require?
This brings me to a rule I would suggest: Do not let the characters do things which invariably make the audience start to go, “hey, wait a minute…”
Going back to the subject of guns and realism, how realistic should a writer get, once you get past the impossibilities? Is the fact that “the man pulled a gun from inside his coat” enough to say or should the text read “the man pulled an automatic from inside his coat”? How about “the man pulled a double-action Heckler-Koch P9S pistol from inside his coat”?
Light-hearted fare and romantic spy novels will usually be just fine with the first example and most “standard” spy adventures will have no trouble with the second. If you are writing for an action-adventure or men’s-adventure crowd, though, you had better go with the last if you hope to satisfy the grognard.
By the same token, if you were to write that “the beautiful woman walked into the room dressed in an elaborate macramé-pleated chiffon skirt with parrot-colored high-heeled espadrilles”, you had better be writing to a very select crowd or you have lost your audience and destroyed any mood you might have been setting. The typical male reader would not care about such detail, assuming he even knew what macramé is, which I do not.
Most authors know their target audience and write to the expected level of realism but anyone who has read a lot can point out the times when a writer has given so much information that it killed the flow of the story. It might have been correct in the realism but the realism was not correct in situation. The reverse cannot be said, though. I doubt any mood was ruined because the reader was disgusted about not knowing what brand of knife the bad guy pulled.
An amusing anecdote I heard decades ago (which I believe could have happened but have no way of verifying) was the story of the publisher in the 1800’s who opened a package to find his company’s book on rabbits and a note from a little girl saying, “Dear sir, I am returning this book on rabbits because you told me more about rabbits than I wanted to know.”
In this instance, the rule should be: Do not give more information than you must to satisfy your target audience.
Looking at both of the scenarios I mentioned at the top, too little and too much realism, I know that as with most things there is a gray area between what is acceptable and what will mess up the story and it is hard for the writer to see for himself when lapses happen. This is a major reason for having editors.
But the two simple rules I mention above should be in the mind of every writer of spy fiction. Do not make the reader go “really?” and never tell more than your intended reader would want.
Of course, that is just my opinion, and no one has ever paid a penny to read what I've written.
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