Should We Write The World We See Or The World We Want?

"I accepted the house with three walls, but boss, your pink face, it's just not believable."
“I accepted the house with three walls, but boss, your pink face, it’s just not believable.”

“Be realistic.” It’s advice we’re often given as people, not just as writers. Be realistic in your expectations. Be realistic in your politics. Be realistic in the way you depict the world.

But is realistic always the best way to go?

A ghost writing client recently told me about changes they’re making to a book I wrote for them. In my version, one of the lead characters smoked. As the book is aimed at teens, and this character is a teen, my client thought it set a bad example, so is editing the cigarettes out. That change is fine with me – if you’re going to get precious over your stories then you shouldn’t write fiction for hire. But it still made me stop and think.

When I was in my teens, I knew plenty of people who smoked. Including that in a story about teens is realistic, and to my mind adds authenticity as well as saying a lot about that particular character. Equally, my client was right. Seeing people smoke, whether in reality or in stories, can influence a teen’s decision to take up the habit. Leaving out smoking made the world of my story a healthier place, and might do the same for the real world, if only in a small way.

This ties into bigger issues. Think of all the discussion about diversity in fiction. One argument against depicting certain groups in positions of power is that they don’t get to those positions, so it’s not realistic. But repeatedly showing the vast majority of influential people as white, male, straight, and so on shapes expectations, and so makes it more likely that such an imbalance will continue.

Of course, your view of realistic may vary from mine. For example, some people see gender as a binary thing, and will find settings full of gender fluidity less convincing as a result. Others see the fluidity of gender as something that has long been unhealthily ignored, and that we need to show to make a better world.

So when should you be realistic, and when should you be idealistic?

I don’t think that’s a clear cut thing. Going back to the example of my smoking teenage character, including the smoking might have made the world more familiar and so appealing to some readers, but might set a bad example for others. Which is the right choice depends a lot on your audience, who you think they are and how they will respond.

Realistically, there are no perfect choices.

What do you think? Do you prefer fiction that seems realistic, or that shows the world as you’d like it to be? Are there certain things where you consider realism more important?

Share your thoughts in the comments – I’m always keen to hear them.