Realism: Does it matter how they cross the desert?

Reading Ruth Goodman’s THE DOMESTIC REVOLUTION about the impact of coal on British homes, has me thinking about the GURPS role-playing game.

Domestic Revolution looks at how and why coal, starting in the 1600s, became the dominant fuel for cooking and home heat. I’m part-way through and I’m struck by all the interesting details about using fire at home: how to cook or to boil water on a wood or peat fire, which fuels are best for which purpose, ways of dealing with smoke (coal made chimney’s necessary) and more. It makes me itch to write something period just so I could work in some of the technical information.

But that’s not going to work for every story. Reading about Descartes and the history of calculus gave me great material for I Think, Therefore I Die but I’m not sure detail about the heating systems in the villain’s house would have been anything but a distraction. In a big, insanely detailed historical novel, on the other hand, writing about how to keep wood smoke from smothering you or how blacksmiths can use ash to cool or control a fire could be precisely what readers enjoy.

Which brings me back to GURPS, the Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Steve Jackson Games introduces GURPS in the 1980s: rather than be specific to a setting (e.g., D&D’s Forgotten Realms) or to a type of game (fantasy, SF, superhero) it offered a set of rules that worked in any setting, with a little customization.

I think it was the basic rule book that mentioned the amount of realistic detail your game employs should be a function of the story. Suppose the PCs (player characters) are heading across the Desert of a Thousand Deaths to confront the villain in his fortress. The GM can set up the adventure so that crossing the desert is a story in itself: searching for water, surviving sandstorms, defeating desert monsters. Alternatively, if the desert is just a prologue and the real story happens at the fortress, the GM can make the trip hard but without dwelling on every detail.

Which is good advice for any sort of storytelling element. Is realistic detail actually going to help your story? If so, what sort of detail? A legal thriller needs lots of detail about the legal system (which is not to say that even successful thrillers get it all right) as do other types of setting novel. Fantasy novels tend to go into considerably more detail about magic system rules than they used to (I’m not a fan of that myself, but obviously a lot of people are).  A military saga involving the high command may be about tactics, strategy and supply lines; if it’s from the foot soldier’s point of view “realism” may focus on staying alive, cleaning your gun and scrounging for food.

There’s also the audience. A lot of people love realistic detail. Some people value detail — or at least detail about their particular field of interest. A guest at a con some years back said he had a friend who wanted any fantasy story involving armies to explain the logistics — how were they feeding themselves? — or he lost interest. By contrast I’m perfectly happy unless they do something I spot as obviously absurd.

I sometimes get the feeling some critics fetishize realism as an end in itself. It’s not. Like so much else it’s in the service of the story.

For visual interest, I’ll close with a shot of Wisp asleep.#SFWApro.


Filed under Writing

3 responses to “Realism: Does it matter how they cross the desert?

  1. I’m cool without much detail–a lot of Robin McKinley’s earlier books are very fairy-tale in that respect–and caaaan be cool with a lot. It depends on the writer’s skill (Tolkien, yes, Jordan, no) and on the subject: I could not give less of a shit about the specifics of guns or submarines or trains, but feasts or clothing or swords or animals are a total yes for me, if done well.

  2. Pingback: From New Orleans to Charleston to London: Books read | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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