How “realistic” does a kid’s novel—or any novel—have to be? Or, rather, how un-realistic can it get away with being before the reader rebels, and thinks, “No”?
The answer probably is: There is no answer. Once we know something is a piece of fiction, we ask only that it pull us in and keep us there with whatever un-realistic creations, tricks, gimmicks, and craft the author can deliver. When, for example, an author informs us that a blue elephant is playing the trombone, we don’t object to it on the grounds that such a thing seems highly improbable.
In fact, we go to fiction precisely to be told about blue elephants playing trombones, because we so seldom encounter them in our daily life. Fantasy, magic, invented creatures and places—when reading about such things, nobody cares about what’s realistic. In fact, the entire category has no meaning.
Still, even in fantasy, and especially in more, uh, realistic forms of fiction, there are hazards of plausibility that must be respected. One concerns dialogue. Now, no one expects, or wants, characters in a book to speak “the way people speak in real life.” The way people speak in real life is an absolute nightmare when transferred to the printed page, as anyone knows who has read a court transcript or the logs of a hidden surveillance unit.
A wide range of speaking styles is available to the writer of fiction, and no one minds how “unrealistic” any of them are, so long as the style chosen suits the setting and the story. The beautifully-crafted sentences spoken by the characters in Jane Austen “sound” perfectly apt coming from them—and we take pleasure in reading them even though “nobody really talks that way today”—but they might sound offputtingly weird in a Raymond Chandler detective novel. The snappy-but-limited verbal stylings of the Cat in the Hat are just perfect coming from him, but might not play so great as the conversational style of the kids in The Hunger Games.
In the end, all we ask is that the dialogue not seem merely “written,” that the characters in the book not sound like characters in a book. If, in fact, the dialogue is such that the reader doesn’t notice it, the writer has done his or her job. If it strikes the reader as being unusually sharp, clever, or funny, all the better.
Another issue of “realism”—one that particularly bugs me—we might call “basic logistics.” In both The Templeton Twins Have an Idea, and in the second book of the series (The Templeton Twins Make a Scene, which I recently finished writing), I have had to deal with an issue of almost hilarious banality: How can the kids get from place to place? They’re twelve or thirteen. They don’t drive. Unless they happen to live near where the action is—where their father works and where the bad guys live—I have to provide them with (plausible) transportation.
In a sense, this is a pain in the neck. I suppose I could have them ride bikes everywhere, but that strikes me as, you should pardon the expression, unrealistic. But that’s my decision. I’m pretty sure that if I did that—if I had John and Abigail ride bicycles every time their father wasn’t available to drive them, no matter how great the distances or how dangerous the roads–probably no one would complain.
In fact, that would make for an interesting literary experiment: Tell a story in which characters simply appear at places where the story needs them to appear, without bothering to explain how they got there. I honestly don’t know if the reader would notice or, if she or he did, would care.
But (for now, at least) I’m not inclined to try that with the Twins. Theirs is a series in which kids solve physical problems in fairly realistic ways. And so, especially in Book II, I’ve had to depend on their nanny to drive them here and there. This proved to be a blessing in disguise: having to grapple with that aspect of the plot prompted me to think of story points I would otherwise never have thought of.
Maybe, then, the question isn’t “how much realism does the reader require,” but, rather, “how much realism does the writer need to feel grounded and secure in the fictional world that’s being created?” Every writer’s answer to that is different, and becomes part of his o r her distinctive style.
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