I’ve been thinking a lot of late about levels of realism and storytelling.
Now, there are of course certain genres (fantasy, science fiction, horror) in which a certain level of unreality is a given. But even in the comparatively mundane realm of crime fiction, there is a sliding scale of realism.
Rather than jumping right into books for this one, I’m going to begin by comparing three crime drama series I’ve been watching since last year: Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-O, and MacGyver.
All three of these shows are solid, based on both my estimation and the ratings they’ve been receiving. All three are popular, in other words. But each show embraces a very different level of realism.
Let’s break them down, from most realistic to least realistic:
Blue Bloods: This is the most realistic of the three. Blue Bloods depicts events that “could happen in real life”, and people who could actually exist. There are heroic characters in Blue Bloods, but there are no superheroes. Accordingly, where there is action, there are no over-the-top, contrived fight scenes like you might see in a Jason Statham movie.
The actors in Blue Bloods are photogenic per the Hollywood standard; but in keeping with show’s level of realism, this isn't a parade of supermodels. The male actors who play cops look like regular guys. There are some moderately attractive women in the show, but neither Amy Carlson nor Bridget Moynahan would stand out that much at a PTA meeting anywhere in suburbia, USA.
Moreover, the female acting talent isn't used as visual bait for the male viewership (more on this shortly).
Blue Bloods also deals with complex issues like police use-of-force, racism—and race hustling. (Blue Bloods, to the credit of the show and its producers, does not always opt for the politically correct, default story lines. This is not one of those shows in which all the black characters are pure souls, all the white characters are frothing racists, and every cop is a feckless brute.)
Hawaii Five-O: This show is a bit less realistic. The characters are fallible human beings, but some of the action scenes strain credibility.
Hawaii Five-O isn't above a bit of sensationalism. About every fourth episode, the show’s writers will employ the cheesecake factor, placing Grace Park in a bikini or a slinky dress.
An hour of Hawaii Five-O often involves light gore. In an episode that I recently saw as a rerun, one of the bad guys was carrying a severed head around in his car.
While there are personal storylines about relationships and family ties, Hawaii Five-O mostly avoids topical social issues. Current events and controversies are seldom referenced.
MacGyver: I enjoy MacGyver, but it is the least realistic and most sensational of the three. The premise of the show is three somewhat unlikely operatives who are employed by a shadowy, secret arm of the U.S. government. They chase international bad guys around. The eponymous MacGyver is a twentysomething technical whiz who can fashion deadly weapons out of light bulbs, batteries, and other common items on a moment’s notice.
While the main characters are likable and have a certain depth, the villains are usually one-dimensional. The villains are more or less props that move and shoot. MacGyver’s action scenes are reminiscent of the A-Team in the 1980s. Every episode has a gun battle, but you know that none of the main characters is going to get hurt, let alone killed.
There is lots and lots of cheesecake in the form of Tristin Mays, whose character is supposed to be a world-class computer hacker, but who is always dressed in ways that draw attention to her curves and cleavage. I’m not complaining, mind you—and nor are the millions of other men who watch MacGyver. (I would wager that there is not a heterosexual man on the planet who wouldn't find Tristin Mays distractingly attractive.)
MacGyver doesn't tackle larger social issues at all, because controversy would be completely incongruent here. MacGyver simply isn't that kind of a show.
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The above examples are from television, but it isn't too hard to find similar levels of realism among crime and thriller novels. Blue Bloods is a Michael Connelly novel; Hawaii Five-O is a James Patterson crime thriller; and MacGyver is pure Clive Cussler.
Each level of realism can be rewarding for the reader/viewer. We turn to different kinds of film/fiction for different purposes. People don’t consume swashbuckling entertainment like MacGyver—or the latest Clive Cussler novel—for an exploration of Serious Issues. Likewise, realistic fiction and television will lose its following in a heartbeat if the rules of reality as we know it are violated.
The level of realism in a particular work must be consciously chosen at the outset. Once those viewer/reader expectations are set, that level of realism should remain consistent. Both the fantastical and the lifelike can work; but blending different levels of realism in the same work is a practice that usually doesn’t.