Way With Worlds: Realism

Train Track Sky Surreal

Realism” is something that many worldbuilders, writers, gamemasters aspire for. That sense of believable, of true, of relatable is treasured as it makes it all real. Realism is that thing that makes a tale have an edge, a game hit you in the gut, that thing that brings a visceral element to the experience and you’re there.

Because of this, Realism is both something to seek in our work. It’s also a sign of successfully making a good world and thus a good tale from it – because people live what we create. However when we ask what realism is in an attempt to achieve it, it becomes much more difficult.

It’s difficult because realism is a trickster.

When you step back from a fiction that seems “realistic,” it may suddenly seem rather unrealistic. Yes, you related to that hero fighting a dragon, felt the fire on your face and smelled the blood – but she was fighting a dragon which isn’t exactly a realistic beast. Yet there, in the experience of a good fantasy novel, it seemed real.

At the same time, just having “realistic” elements in a tale or a game doesn’t mean it seems real. A world of cars and computers and gritty real-life experiences can seem detached, empty. The elements are real but it doesn’t “feel” real.

Sometimes dragons are more believable than accountants. Realism is a trickster.

This is because, like any good trickster, realism has more than one face – two, as far as i’m concerned. Your world and the tales and games within it need to show both faces to be truly “real.”

The Face Within: Internal Realism

We can read the most outlandish science fiction or magic-drenched fantasy and be lost within it. We can follow things with little connection to our reality and live them. The unreal, the fantastic, the not-yet true can be very real in a good world and a good tale.

This is because a setting is believable if it has consistent rules and principles that are followed. It may be a realm of clockwork stars and sorcerous cats, but if people can recognize why and how, cause and effect they buy into it. We humans like rules, and when we can divine them in a work, then we can believe it.

Internal realism is this kind of realism -the realism of a setting that is consistent, if outlandish. It can be understood and comprehended and analyzed. Because there is “something” there, it can be believed. Because it can be believed, it seems real to people.

But Internal Realism has an equal partner.

The Face Without: External Realism

When wizard cats battle among clockwork stars, we may find ourselves cheering the heroine because we understand her motivations. When superheroes thunderously battle across dimensions, the blow-by-rib-cracking blow stories make us feel each unrealistic punch. When people who never existed come from cities we’ve heard of, we “get” them. When we read of the glint of sunlight on a sea that never was, we “see” it.

No matter how untrue or fantastical or made-up, a good world with good characters, a good tale, gives us ways to connect to the characters and setting. We can relate to characters, feel their pain, gasp in wonder at a description, or nod at a man who never was describing a good Philly cheesesteak.

This is the realism that we connect to – pain and emotion, location and cuisine, a visual description that is evocative. It is the realism that connects us to the fictional through experiences we can understand. Everything else may be unrealistic, but there are elements of “real” we connect to.

These places of connection could be real historical events, believable technology, relatable characters, and visceral experiences. They can be many things, but all good External Realisms bridge the gap between us and the fictional.

Someone may fight dragons, but we relate to his need to keep an armor budget.

Realism: The Two Sides Together

Both realisms are your goal as a worldbuilder and creator because they work together. Internal realism means your world is understandable and External Realism makes your world relatable. Both mean your audience connects to a setting and its characters – even if that setting is strange and alien.

If you lack Internal Realism, your world is ruleless, hard to relate to, the realistic parts floating in a sea of incomprehensibility.

If you lack External Realism, your world is one people can’t connect to. The characters aren’t relatable, the experiences lack visceral elements, the setting seems lifeless.

Together? Together you can have the most fantastical world that people can connect to. They might not consciously realize just how deep they are in a setting that is totally “unreal” because it’s so real.

Again, realism is a trickster.

Getting Both Sides Of Realism

How does one develop both kinds of realism? I’ve found these things help:

  • Good world design. In short, don’t skimp on building your detailed setting. Throw yourself into it and get all those fine details. That’s good for Internal Realism.
  • Worlds that work. Put your worlds to work and create with them. Can you write multiple tales n them. Can you write up a description of, say, the magic in a way that explains things understandably. Can you translate characters to RPG rules effectively? Play with your world in different forms to et a feel for it and see if you can relate to it in different ways. When you can, it shows there’s a real “there” here. Good for Internal Realism.
  • Empathy for the characters. Learn to step into character’s shoes so you understand them. Understanding them as you build them and write them better – and this mean sin turn people can “get” them. Good for External Realism.
  • Ask questions. Asking questions of why and how helps you flesh out a world – and you’ll often be thinking like a reader or player. Good for Internal Realism and External Realism.
  • Empathy for the reader/player. Whoever peruses your media you also want to think of them. Is what you write readable and relatable, do your descriptions evoke and inspire. Thinking of how they connect to your work and you world helps you create better -and maybe find some flaws in your work. Good for Internal Realism and External Realism.

A Worthy Quest

Developing both sides of Realism is a worthy quest indeed. It means you’ll create worlds people truly connect with -and works people truly connect with. These are powerful, affecting, and memorable.

In other words, very real.


– Steven Savage