My assumption here is that a novel set in the current time and world seems more realistic to a reader than a novel with a fictional setting. The reader has the ability to say, "that could be true." In a fictional novel, it's understood that what is written could never happen. My assumption is that this detracts from the novel.

My question is this: Will a plot be able to convey the same amount of realism in a fictional setting as in a current time/place setting?

To be clear: I know details add realism. My question is if a real-world setting has a sense of realism that no amount of detailing can give a fictional one. No matter how well you describe a fictional setting, the reader can never think, 'that could be real.' I want to know if that will detract from the novel.


Fictional Setting: Lord of the Rings. The setting is pure fiction, the reader knows the place never existed.

Real-Life Setting: Harry Potter. Though the reader is fairly certain magic does not exist, there is a slight doubt because it is set in the real world. It could be true - wizards could be really good at hiding.

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    Using a familiar setting can actually hinder suspension of disbelief because the reader is more likely to perceive unrealistic aspects and treat them as breaking the implicit contract that the world is the same as ours (even accurate portrayals contrary to expectation can encounter this problem). "Pure" fantasy is generally given more liberty to be odd. Of course, the author also works to establish the degree and breadth of realism to be expected (e.g., hardness in SF — TV Tropes warning!)
    – user5232
    Jan 14, 2015 at 0:35
  • 2
    Your title is not asking what your question is asking. Your title is asking if the same level of realism can be achieved. Your question is whether a non-realistic setting will be as popular, and then you ask if it will be as good. So first, figure out which question you want to ask, and second, define "popular" (sales?) and "good" (critical reviews?). Right now I'm not sure what you're after. Jan 14, 2015 at 1:00
  • Hmm, good catch. My question would be along the lines of the title. I'm basically trying to figure out if a fictional setting is going to hurt the book by not being able to do what a real setting can. Jan 14, 2015 at 3:04
  • And by 'hurt the book' I mean detract from it in terms of writing. Removing something the reader would get out of it otherwise. Jan 14, 2015 at 3:09

2 Answers 2


The factor in believability is not setting or genre, but the ability of the writer.

For example, I don't usually watch movies or tv series dealing with love relationships set in the present time because the depicted behavior almost always seems completely unrealistic to me. No one I know treats their family, friends and co-workers like the characters do in Sex in the City or the latest Barbara Cartland novel. Yes, there is some similarity in detail, but in total, the characters are completely unbelievable to me.

On the other hand, I always find the fictional worlds depicted in fantasy and science fiction totally believable. Sure, nothing in them is real, but because they don't set out to claim to be true, I can easily suspend disbelief and indulge in the what-if.

There are contemporary novels and movies that approach topics like relationships in the same, what-if way: what if we were completely honest; what if we lived open relationships; what if I only pretended to be in love; and so on. Novels that are thought experiments (and on that interpersonal level do what science fiction does on the social or technological level) are easy to "believe", because they clearly say that they are not true, and this honesty makes it easy for me to ignore those unrealistic parts that are irrelevant to the thought experiment.

There is, of course, non-genre, literary, realist fiction, both in movies and novels, that is believable, just as there are fantasy or sf novels that are totally believable and they feel real except for the fact that you know they cannot be. There are also, of course, novels depicting real persons and events that feel completely untrue and made up. Not because they are untrue, but because they are badly written.

If you are unable to convey the present day real world in your writing, it is only the statement that it is set in the present day that makes it believable to the reader, but not the writing itself. If, on the other hand, you are able to convey a made up fantasy world, it is only the statement that it is fantasy that makes in untrue, while at the same time it will feel totally believable to the reader.

So you need to differentiate between facuality and believability. The first can only apply to existing settings, characters and/or events. The second can be a characteristic of any writing.

To me the Lord of the Rings does not feel realistic, despite its wealth of detail, because the narrative style is not realistic but that of sagas, fairy tales and childrens books, using formulaic narration, stereotiypical characterization and an ironic view on events that comes from the writings that Tolkien loved and intenionally emulated.

The Lord of the Rings is a legend (of a fictional world), and not a realistic novel. There are realist fantasy novels that emulate the style of autobiographies (Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun), historic novels (Geoge R. R. Martin, The Song of Ice and Fire) or adventure tales (Robin Hobb, Farseer Trilogy). If you subtract the ficional world from these books, they no longer differ from fiction set in the real world.

Finally, it is not the detail that causes "realism" or believability. If I write, without any detail at all, that:

Joan cried.

then that is believable. But if I write, with much detail, that

Joan wailed very loudly and a lot of tears streamed over her face falling onto her legs and wetting her pants.

then that sounds somehow unrealistic because the writing is bad and the details are irrelevant. If on the other hand I write

Joan cried, her warm tears falling on my hands, and I smiled.

then the added detail adds intensity (and a perverse riddle) that make what I write believable, and if I write

Joan cried in rhythmic hiccups that reminded me of the stuttering of an automobile engine running on its last drops of gas.

then that sounds realistic again, because I (hopefully) found an engaging simile and wrote it well.

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    + 1 I agree with most of what you've said. Great point about the stylized narrative style of the Lord of the Rings, nevertheless Middle Earth itself feels very real to me, certainly more real and alive than Harry Potter's London. Regarding detail, the example you give is unrelated to setting. Crying is real - adding detail doesn't make it more real. It's not about additional detail, but the right detail. Realism in literature is characterized by attention to the detail of mundane life coupled with the lack of stylization. Jan 14, 2015 at 10:59
  • In my opinion, Tolkien's Middle Earth feels real because you have become habituated after reading a few thousand pages of it. It is like the Bible in that respect: we believe in Christianity, because our culture is saturated with it, giving it a feel of normalicy. In the same way much of our recent culture is soaked in Tolkien, with the movies, radio plays, calendars, Lego sets etc.
    – user5645
    Jan 14, 2015 at 11:24
  • My examples at the end were not about wether or not crying is realistic, but wether or not the way the character cries is realistic. I intentionally chose something real to write it in a way that makes it seem unrealistic (the second version). Please not the difference between real and real-istic. Even real things can appear unrealistic, if told in the "right" (i.e. wrong) way.
    – user5645
    Jan 14, 2015 at 11:26
  • Perhaps, although I felt this way about LOTR long before it became the cultural phenomenon it is now. Funny that you mention the Bible. Reading the Old Testament- many of those real places feel very unreal due to the archaic language. Jan 14, 2015 at 11:29
  • As for Potter, the problem here is that you have a clash of real London with the fictional London, which is always difficult, because the reality constantly contradicts the fiction.
    – user5645
    Jan 14, 2015 at 11:29

It depends how it's done. Detail makes realism.

The worlds of Tolkien and Garcia Marquez come out as very realistic despite being impossible in reality.


From Literary Realism - Broadly defined as "the faithful representation of reality", realism in the arts is the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements.

Also see Magic Realism, which applies specifically in this case.

  • I know that details always add credibility. My question is if a real-life setting has something that no amount of detailing can give a fictional setting. Jan 13, 2015 at 23:54
  • Consider that most real-life settings are effectively fictional to most people who have never been there, or who don't know anything about the place. Jan 14, 2015 at 4:25
  • That is not my point. Harry Potter is set in London. I've never been to London, but I nonetheless find myself thinking that wizards could be living among us, so good at hiding we would never know they were there. If the book were set on a fantasy world, I would never think that. Jan 14, 2015 at 5:21
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    In that case, if I understand what you're saying, then this distinction isn't a general question of fictional vs. real worlds, but that the particulars of supernatural events in the real world being a big part of the appeal. In this case I'd suggest you look up Magic Realism in Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_realism). Jan 14, 2015 at 10:43

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