A woman smiles as she looks down at a glaring toddler with a cartoonishly large head.

In Raya and the Last Dragon, Raya meets an invader from another story.

One of the most important choices you can make about your story is the level of realism* you’d like. A story with a more realistic feel tells audiences that characters have to meet a higher standard when solving problems. A story with low realism signals that the story will be campy or whimsical. When a story violates these expectations, it will feel jarring or contrived.

While realism is most associated with grittiness, that only applies when the story is dark. Stories can also be light and realistic-feeling. They just need to offer relatable, real-world experiences and high accuracy while keeping a positive tone.

Stories with higher realism are often lauded for it. But realism is not inherently better, nor is it a good choice for every story. Let’s look at five common tropes that work much better when realism is low.

1. Walking Off Deadly Wounds

Darth Vader fights a Black woman in the dark outfit of a Sith.
In the Obi-Wan Kenobi show, Vader stabs the sympathetic antagonist, Reva, through the midsection with his lightsaber. Somehow, she still crawls off and survives.

One of the most common signals of realism is how the story deals with injury. Does hitting someone on the head mean you’ve pushed their “Off” button, or will it give them a serious concussion? Can characters shake off bullet and stab wounds, or does getting shot in the abdomen mean a slow and painful death?

Hawkeye was remarkable among Marvel shows in that it showed the heroes slowly recovering from their wounds. That’s higher realism than most Marvel works, in which heroes are electrocuted or tossed fifty feet in the air without needing significant rest or recovery – even if they don’t have superpowers. This is generally fine because it’s consistent with the realism of these works. It becomes a problem when early scenes show that wounds are as deadly as they are in real life and then later a hero shakes off a bullet or stab wound.

Unfortunately, storytellers have a perverse incentive to mess this one up. To make the story more exciting, we want the situation to be as dire as possible while still leaving room for the hero to turn it around. For this reason, heroes may sustain injuries that are too dire for how realistic the story feels or, at least, too dire for the hero to keep fighting like nothing happened.

When a character walks off wounds that should be deadly, it doesn’t just break believability. It also makes the character’s recovery feel cheaper, and any similar injuries after that will mean less. If we keep escalating this trend, soon we’ll need characters to sew their heads back on in the middle of a fight.

2. Air Catches

Three Koreans in grungy clothes on a dark and cramped space ship.
Space Sweepers looks like a high realism movie, doesn’t it? Just wait.

Some stunts look real cool, but are terribly unrealistic. A good example is the air catch. This happens any time someone starts falling to their death and another character grabs them before they hit the ground. In some cases, this is a scientific impossibility, because the catch requires the rescuer to fall faster than the damsel. Other times, it’s just implausible that another hero could swing in fast enough and with exactly the right trajectory to catch their comrade in midair.

Take Space Sweepers, a movie that initially feels high in realism because of its detailed examination of classism. Team Good is trying to get ahead in a rigged economic system that leaves them trapped in debt and at the mercy of a giant corporation. Then they decide to defy the corporation in hopes of a big jackpot.

At first, it’s easy to ignore how the protagonists escape getting shot when they’re fired upon in a large and crowded room. That’s a regular feature of films that works in pretty realistic scenarios. But when one protagonist falls several floors and another protagonist manages to swing in at the last second on a rope, their plot shields become obvious.

Cue a dozen more wild stunts on the part of the heroes, and the movie doesn’t deliver what it promised: a story where poor underdogs have to outmaneuver an opponent they aren’t powerful enough to confront directly. The setup provided highly realistic problems, but then followed it with less realistic solutions.

Other examples of implausible story physics include:

  • Wings that are not large enough for flight.
  • Strong characters who somehow have infinite body mass to keep them on the ground.
  • Explosions that toss characters aside without burning or breaking them.

Let’s not forget what happens in classic cartoons like Looney Tunes. If you ever doubt that realism matters, just imagine a character in your favorite live-action show walking off a cliff onto thin air, realizing they aren’t on the ground anymore, and finally falling. Then they get up again, of course.

3. Humanish Aliens

A blue-skinned alien points a gun at another alien with lots of hair and forehead ridges in Star Trek: Enterprise.
These aliens are actually pretty creative for Star Trek.

A staple of live-action space opera is having sapient aliens that look very much like humans. In most cases, they can even interbreed with us. This convention is partially because of the constraints of film. In live action, creating aliens that aren’t played by human actors requires expensive special effects that could still look fake. Actors can wear bulky costumes, but it hinders their performance. Given that, simply using humanish aliens was the best choice for franchises like Star Trek, Babylon Five, Stargate, and, to a lesser extent, Star Wars.

But humanish aliens are still exceedingly low in realism. This is likely why Andor, a gritty Star Wars TV show, sticks to human characters, with only a few aliens in the background. Depicting the aliens risks making the show’s highly realistic struggle against an oppressive empire look hokey.

When popular hard-scifi stories include aliens, those aliens are always vastly different from humans. In The Expanse, humans investigate a protomolecule that was engineered by an extinct alien civilization. While that civilization is largely mysterious, they existed as a hive mind that used bioluminescence for communication. In Project Hail Mary, humans are threatened by alien microbes they name the Astrophage, which are dimming the sun.

Given that narrated works don’t have the production constraints of film, writers are expected to be a little more creative with their aliens. If sexy babes with green skin come to visit Earth, the story will feel campy. If that’s what you want, then great, go to town. Otherwise, you may need to either give them an Earth origin or provide a robust explanation for why they look so much like humans.

4. Fairy-Tale Kingdoms

A shot from an animated film, showing a glimpse through the trees of a large castle with elaborate towers and turrets.
Does the Beast actually rule anyone from this castle? Let’s not ask.

In fantasy, typical medieval-Europe-inspired worlds usually fall on a spectrum between feeling more historical to feeling more like a fairy tale. History-inspired settings are much more specific about how the world works, especially political boundaries and politics. They also incorporate details about the food, tools, or clothes that people actually had during the Renaissance or in medieval times.

In lower-realism fairy-tale settings, royalty pops out from under every mushroom. A princess may be introduced without any mention of what kingdom she’s from. When many kingdoms are named, their exact borders are rarely important, nor are their political relationships sketched out in detail. A monarch may give half the kingdom to some guy who rescued their daughter from a dragon.

While fairy-tale settings usually have peasants, they’re the kind of peasants that show up in cottagecore slideshows, not serfs who live on the edge of starvation. And everyone has modern luxuries like their own room and access to sweets every day.

Mixing and matching the traits of historical and fairy-tale settings doesn’t create good results. For instance, in They Mostly Come Out at Night, author Benedict Patrick paints a gritty picture of a struggling village where families live in one-room cottages. Because of this, it’s strange that sacks of grain are sitting out where rodents can get them and a character turns up her nose at berries for being too sweet. If Patrick aimed for low realism, those things wouldn’t matter.

Similarly, a fairy-tale setting should generally stay that way. If it goes into historical detail about diseases ravaging the population or the intricate politics between monarchs, that will create clashing aesthetics.

5. Child Action Heroes

A cartoon shot of a family of anthropomorphic frogs plus a young woman, all looking determined and ready for a fight.
In Amphibia, even the little tadpole fights in battle.

In the real world, children being sent into danger is a clear sign that something is terribly wrong with society. Loving parents want to protect their kids, and adults do a much better job taking care of tough problems. But children naturally want to see heroes like them in their stories, and adults still love a good coming-of-age tale. Satisfying this demand is a lot easier when realism is low.

In cartoons like Amphibia, the Plantar family fights dangerous creatures together, and no one thinks anything of it. In stories that are a little higher in realism but still aren’t particularly realistic, the irresponsibility of sending kids into danger can be ignored as long as the storyteller doesn’t call too much attention to it. A child superhero can be asked to save the day by an adult government, or a parent can be blissfully unaware of the adventures their kid is going on all the time.

As realism goes up, these conceits become harder to swallow. It’s still possible to make a child hero believable, but you have to work harder. The child will likely be on the older side, their tasks may not be as difficult and dangerous, and adults must be thoroughly out of the way.

In Stranger Things season 1, the child heroes mostly work on hiding Eleven, the only person with powers in the show. Eleven fights the Upside Down with psychic powers because no one else can. Then there’s Will, who is pulled into the Upside Down involuntarily. He spends his time hiding from monsters while trying to communicate with his mother, so she can rescue him.

Raya and the Last Dragon created a huge realism clash when it suddenly introduced a small child that could perform advanced martial arts and outmaneuver the adults. While that conceit exists in films like The Boss Baby, it’s not something you can just throw seamlessly into another film.

It’s not impossible to change the level of realism during your story, but you’ll need a way to set the right expectations. If your character falls asleep and enters a surrealist dream world, the audience won’t expect events to be as realistic. The trick is not to surprise them by breaking the rules you’ve set for the narrative.

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