Keeping it Real.

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I read a really interesting thread on realism in fantasy writing. I have thoughts on this and decided I would share them. As ever with stuff like this, we are all different and one person's truth is another person's abject nonsense so take whatever you think might be useful from this and ignore anything else.


In a lot of ways, realism is the enemy of fiction. Writing, is not about realism. When it comes down to it a novel is often a string of unlikely co-incidences put together to make a series of events that remain interesting so the reader doesn't wander off and pick up another book. Even formats you expect to be realistic, like historical fiction, cherry pick what they want to use and play fast and loose with actuality[1].


But RJ, you say, I demand realistic armour and weapons on my men and women riding dragons and throwing fireballs at each other.


Well, why wouldn't you? And in many ways you are right to.


I think a move toward realism has been a good thing because it's a reaction against the chainmail bikini nonsense[2] of a some older fantasy. But what you are after is the smoke and mirrors of fiction: it's not about realism, it's about the illusion of realism and that is what makes writing fiction wonderful. If you are a writer it is good to be aware that most of your audience will neither know nor care if you have the correct type of riveting in your dragon rider's armour. So don't stop writing to research it and don't stop your AWESOME dragon fight to explain the smelting process of said rivets.


If you put a thing in your book and it's not totally egregiously out there you probably don't need to explain it. Most readers will just take it as red that it's how your world works. Some people, at some point, might complain but that is going to happen anyway so don't sweat it. You don't have to become an expert on weaponry to write cool fight scenes[3].


Point the second: Sometimes a thing is not a thing. Ninja were not the black clad sneaky fellows we think of now. They often dressed as peasants and used the fact no one looked at peasants to sneak in and kill people, they were all about not being noticed. BUT, if you see a peasant with a load of other peasants how are you meant to know that particular peasant is actually a super cool ninja about to flip out and kill people? You don't. That's why the image of the black clad ninja survives despite historical inaccuracy, you see it, you know what it means and what that person is about. Shortcuts like that are hugely useful in any form of art. So sometimes a sword is not a sword, sometimes armour is not armour; it's a metaphor for character. Who is the bad guy in this scene? Oh, it's probably the guy using a human skull as a helmet. No, it's not practical headgear and won't pass a health and safety check. BUT it has saved me from writing five hundred words of boring exposition.


If research and stuff is your thing and you enjoy it, knock yourself out but here are my three quick tips for any writer starting out and wondering about how real they should keep it:

We don't need to know everything.

Don't let what is 'real' get in the way of what is entertaining.

Ninja are cool.



TL/DR if you can make it feel real, a reader will accept it.








  1. Vikings is a good example of this. The gear is mostly spot on, the history is less so (I am paraphrasing a Viking historian friend here so don't @ me).

  2. If you want realism in your fantasy and you are angry about the lack of chainmail bikini wearing busty female warriors you may want to have a think about what you actually want.

  3. As quite a few bestselling books will attest to.

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  1. Jonathan

    I've been going through your blog because of how much I've enjoyed "Age of Assassins", and I wanted to say that I really appreciate your take on "realism". I really, really enjoyed seeing where you have and haven't been "realistic" and how that's constructed the world, characters and plot. (I will have to disagree with your historian friend about the material culture of "Vikings", though)

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  2. Jay

    I enjoyed reading this a lot. But what exactly isn?t realistic about chain mail bikinis?

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