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A WAY WITH WORLDS: THE REALISM FACTOR By Steven Savage, creator of the Crossworld of Xai. Archives available at Seventh Sanctum
You've created a world you consider realistic for stories or role-playing games. Or perhaps a tale of your world, original or not, is hailed for its realism.
Realism seems to be something worldbuilders and writers and gamemasters aspire to have in their creations. However, that does lead to the interesting question of just what is realism in the settings you create or use? What is this quality of realism that's so valued?
This is an odd question when you consider that stories, games, and many settings are, when you get down to it, made up – in short, unreal. Even historical fiction has an "unrealistic" quality to it in that, though there are many elements we consider real, the stories told are created whole or in part from the writer's imagination.
Realism is a trickster. When we try to grasp it, it's difficult. It's never where we reach and always seems to sneak up on us in a moment of "that works" or "wow, your story was great."
And that is because, I believe, in writing fiction and creating fictional worlds, there are two kinds of realism that we fuse into one: Internal and External Realism. If you don't have both, you don't have that realistic sense you want.
INTERNAL REALISM: Internal realism is consistency within your setting that is different significantly from people's actual, real-life experiences. This is the part of your world with the magic, the dragons, the superheroic powers, and the people who didn't exist historically.
The major requirement of Internal Realism be that it is consistent. Yes, you may have a world with dragons - but if you give the dragons consistent behavior and abilities and perhaps even culture, they will have their own kind of believability. Or perhaps you've got some made-up soldiers in a World War II story - make sure they have believable pasts and personalities.
A lack of Internal Realism will lead to confusion among your readers - and confusion in keeping track of cause and effect in your world. As weird as your world may be, consistency will mean it can be understood by your readers.
EXTERNAL REALISM: External realism is the part of the world that's like the world of the reader - our world (or what passes for it). It could be historical events, believable technology, and, the most important - believable characters. External Relism is what people comprehend and can understand as they've experienced it themselves.
Characterization is usually the most important part of External Realism. No matter how wild your world may be, how bizarre the elements of Internal Realism, if people can relate to your cast because they are believable and understandable, you've got your reader.
A lack of External Realism will make it hard for people to relate to your world as there will be too much they don't understand and not enough that they do.
External Realism is the gateway for your readers, the hook that lets them understand the Internal Realism.
In fact, the two have to go hand in hand . . .
COMBINING THE TWO REALISMS: Once you have both your realisms, the important thing is making sure they work together - as they will impact each other. If you have a fantasy world with dragons, people are not going to be unconcerned about giant near-indestructible fire-breathing lizards unless you give a good reason. In a superhero tale, despite great powers, people are people - with their motivations and fears and reactions. Standard firearms are going to be treated much different in a world of sorcery or telepathy.
The final key, the "fused realism" of your entire world is making sure that the elements people can relate to (External Realism) and the elements you devised (Internal Realism) fuse perfectly. A seamless integration of things your audience can understand provides the gateway to comprehending what you've created.
As noted, External Realism is the key to making sure Internal Realism is accessible by your readers. So, perhaps there aren't two realisms after all . . .
As I noted, realism is a trickster. This is just a conceptual tool to help you develop that strange but wonderful and important quality in your worldbuilding.
SUMMARY: Realism in a created world requires consistency for what you have created in fiction (Internal Realism) and believability in what you have taken from the real world (External Realism). By fusing the two you create a believable world despite its fictional elements, and a richer experience for your reader.
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The complete works are archived at the Way With Worlds archive. A German translation is in the works at Christian Spliess's Page