Realism vs. fantasy

I should note that my use of the term, “fantasy,” in this article, is not in the sense of Low Fantasy or High Fantasy, if we’re looking at book genres. Rather, it refers to the contents of imagination from which at least two forms of creative content: Fiction, and Sequential Art, spring. The following should be viewed with the latter two forms of expression, in mind. When I use the term, “reality,” I mean to refer to the real world — the world unfiltered by our imaginations and mental input, if that is ever possible to experience.

Having gotten back into reading Short Stories and Flash Fiction, and drawing on my memory of all the English and Writing classes I’ve taken…along with, well, the manga I used to collect (though I could only read glimpses of its text) and other visual culture from Japan (I’m particularly thinking of games and anime)…plus becoming more attuned to the way people actually talk, which is leaps and bounds away from the well-thought-out language that appears in Writing and on TV (if it did not, there would be a lot of frustrated audiences)…

…it all solidifies the idea that reality is an entirely different thing from fantasy. This is not necessarily the problem I’m dealing with. The problem is that people don’t seem to comprehend that reality is different from fantasy. People sometimes expect reality to mirror fantasy, or fantasy to be a reliable guide to reality.

In some other places — specifically, I’m thinking of Japan — it’s taken as granted that media productions are not the same thing as reality. We don’t have that kind of cultural distinction between products of the imagination, and our lived social world, in the U.S.

I have a powerful imagination. I’ve had to grapple with the distinction between imagination and hard facts, as I believe most of us do (if we do the work). It took, probably, decades for me to be able to separate the inner workings of my mind (where my stories came from) from what was actually physically happening, and I’m still working on it. The brain likes to spin worlds of its own. The brain likes to lie, and tell me it knows the truth, with the inherent problem of measuring itself against itself.

The brain is an unreliable narrator, at least sometimes. And yes, that even applies to people who say they’re reliable and claim authority. We all have brains, and brains have flaws — some of them, built-in.

It didn’t help that when I was growing up, the role models I had to look forward to in my (assigned) reading — people who shared my “supposed” gender (sex does not equal gender) — were not people I wanted to inhabit or be like. They were structurally limited. This led to my drafting stories whose main characters were all male, and identifying with maleness myself, in my early years. I simply couldn’t conceptualize a female character with what Sociology refers to as, “agency,” or a mind of her own and an awareness of society and way of navigating through life.

But stories aren’t the real world.

Most characters who had motivation and power, and could effectually change the world of the story, or drive the story, were male (unless they were utilizing their sexuality to compel a male to change the world: we did not read One Thousand and One Nights [I still haven’t read it, though maybe it’s worth a look], and the entire Agrippina/Nero story as referenced in Hamlet…I don’t remember expounding upon that, though I do know we read Hamlet). And “women” were what the men in the stories wanted them to be, or didn’t want them to be; regardless, they were objects of desire (or specifically of un-desire) or desiring objects. You see the theme: power revolves around (male) desire and female sexuality — mostly, when specifically used with males.

Sappho is a notable digression (though we know her as a poet, not a prose author). As are Toni Morrison and (possibly? my memory is fuzzy) Leslie Marmon Silko: but both Beloved and Ceremony (to the best of my memory, with the latter) were extremely painful books to get through. Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins probably worked because there were no males in the story to take it over. Same with Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.

But female subjection to male power and the only way out being through catering to male desire, is fantasy. It’s fantasy from a biased selection of authors which is presented cohesively so as to try to represent a larger English-language- (and male-) dominated cultural reality, and exclude other visions of realities and possible realities. Only certain books are translated, and there are the questions as to, “which,” and, “why?” For that matter, only certain books are published, and the historical makeup and perspectives of the Publishing industry are also most probably worth looking into on this question.

Perhaps English class in secondary school was, in short, being used as socialization, which I’ve heard (from a Teacher) to be one of the major purposes of schooling in the U.S. And maybe the issue wasn’t that the writing was fantastical in nature, more than that the same perspectives generating those fantasies, kept popping up so frequently (and being challenged so rarely) that they might have been seen to have some bearing on reality, in general.

Maybe Fiction (among other untruths) does have some bearing on reality, but I don’t have the energy to question just how, right now. It could be an interesting subject for a future post — probably after a lot of study.

Here’s another question: For the sake of generating creative storytelling at all, is it necessary and OK that fantasy differs from reality?

Or maybe the question could be phrased:

“What aspects of reality do we want to acknowledge or cleave to when writing creatively?”

The answer might be, “those that are important.” But then we have to define what we mean by, “important,” and, “important to whom? How? In what function?” After all, the potential audiences for our works, are heterogenous. Maybe at one time, a reading audience was considered relatively monolithic; not, now.

That’s a good thing, by the way.

In our lived world, the responses in viewers based on how a person appears, or sounds, or smells, or Deity forbid, their skin texture — has nothing whatsoever to do with the viewed person’s essence. What they look like does not equate to who they are. Their physicalities, and stories others make about those who look like them, are not their spirit.

When we see a person for the first time and form opinions about that person based on first impressions…which can quickly run into the realm of, “only impressions,” should that person lock us out…that can run into the realm of unconscious bias and prejudice. Yet, in Illustration, at least; I’ve read the opinion that a character’s visual design should be an expression of who s/he is on the inside.

I find the latter view to be problematic. For me, as an author, and as an artist. Not to mention, as a mixed-race, gender-nonbinary person. As I’ve noted about the latter before, my identity as anything other than “cisgender” does not change the facts; it changes the reference. And I think that changing the reference, for me, is the entire point.

As a person of mixed race, I have had people trying to racially, “figure me out,” for pretty much all of my life — at least, when it wasn’t obvious: when I wasn’t with both parents at once, which mostly just gained ogling. (One starts to dismiss ogling, after a while; otherwise, you just start not going out of the house. It just takes some accepting that there are people who aren’t used to seeing human variation.) For most of my early life, I was pressured by forms to “choose one” racial category, which for me meant choosing which of my parents and families to identify with.

This means I have been pushed to reveal a reference point against which I can be measured, or give the person I’m encountering some reference as to “what I am.” People are surprisingly poor at guessing. At one conference I was confronted by a pair — granted, a non-White pair, which was minorly consoling (at least they knew what it was like to be racialized and targeted, themselves) — asking me about my background. I said, “Guess.” They must have guessed 40 combinations put together, before I got tired and told them.

The key question is why people want to know this, in the first place. What story does my racial background supply? (Perhaps a lot, if we’re looking at the history of racial mixing after the Japanese Internment of WWII — but I didn’t come across that tidbit of information, until recently.) And is being pushed to reveal my race before its time, invasive? Does the information even supply anything of value to the conversation, when the person is for all intents and purposes, a stranger — and may remain, a stranger? Should my family history be a topic of casual conversation?

There is also the question of whether I would rather have people asking me this, than people assuming wrongly that they know my background and its contents. The problem is, I could tell them my background, and then they would also assume wrongly, because they have no accurate information about either side of my family where it comes to race or culture.

Possibly as an outcome of this pressure, which I’ve had to deal with for as long as I can remember, I have developed a stronger identification with one side of my family than the other — even though it’s mostly only other Asian people who can tell on sight that I’m part-Asian. Or sometimes, as recently, I stun people by speaking Japanese language, when I don’t appear stereotypically Japanese. I still grew up being socialized with the Japanese side of my family, and mostly not so, with the other one (which I tend to elide online, for privacy purposes). As an effect, I’m culturally largely Japanese-American, even though I don’t, “look it.”

And yeah — I do then have to deal with stereotypes about female Japanese people. But seriously: it’s fairly easy to spot people who retain these. They get too excited. Way. Too. Excited. But spotting this, takes experience.

Actually…that’s another, “work,” as we would say in Cataloging. It’s another story. I don’t know how long the writing would continue, but there is definitely material to be mined, there.

As a youth, I lived with ongoing race tensions within my extended family, and ongoing race tensions at school. I was largely unaware of the scope of the latter when I was in it; but, for children who aren’t introduced to the concept of racism until years after they’ve encountered and had to cope or deal with it, it may be that way.

On a recent occasion, I had the opportunity to get some more alcohol markers. Getting the markers reminded me of the work I’ve done in Illustration…and a couple of nights ago, I re-attempted drawing. Successfully.

I also made a number of notes in my binder about how to draw the various threads of my current project, together. It’s possible. It’s very — possible. The outcome, however, is going to be an outright fantastical story; something that departs from the conventions of realism or literal possibility. It may put me into Genre fiction, as versus Literary fiction.

And no, I haven’t yet decided whether it’s even worth it to consider making this story into a Graphic Novel, when — let’s face it, I have Art skills, but I don’t draw often anymore, on my own. I have generated some ideas for a couple of shorts, which I may very well use for practice. Then there is the entire question of why I associate certain character designs with certain characters. Why do they match? I’m not entirely sure.

I have no idea what my brain is doing when it’s developing visual character designs. I also don’t know everything that goes into making one character appear unmistakably severe and another, not (though I have some ideas, and they do not give me much comfort). This is visual language, which I feel okay in admitting, I don’t totally understand. After all, it isn’t like I have an advanced degree in Art.

I know part of this language is cultural; I just don’t like to be complicit with culture where it stereotypes and misleads (though that brings up a very interesting caveat in intentional misdirection). There is a rather full history of — especially — racial bigotry and stereotyping in cartooning in this country, and one may not always know where the references they learned, are coming from. It’s fairly easy to identify some of the most flagrantly harmful stereotypes. The question for me is whether that’s just scratching the surface.

What does it mean in Art to represent a character’s traits in their physical appearance; when we know that in reality, physical appearance does not relate to internal character? How does it reflect on all the real people who actually, through no fault of their own, have those appearances?

There’s more to unpack here, but I haven’t connected all the dots yet.

This is a reason I migrated back to text as a medium. Using text means that I can tell a story giving the reader specifically limited (and delimited or qualified) information to elicit an effect, whereas in an illustrated story or comic…well, I’ve been attuned to pay attention to details, and I know that details are what make things come alive. This is true for me both in prose and in drawing — though it is worth noting that I’m still working my way out of realism, in Drawing, where it’s much harder for me to edit a detail out.

The point is that Fiction is essentially creative — what I’ve been calling, “fantastical,” — in nature. Although it may bear a semblance to reality, or comment on reality, it is not reality. As I’ve mentioned before, however; even at the beginning of this post: not everyone realizes that. And that’s a problem. As to the scale of the problem, I’m no longer sure.

After a point, the question arises as to what the author themselves is attempting to communicate (or work out) on the whole, and everything else falls in line, after that. Realism isn’t necessarily a goal, and attempting to cleave to realism in all ways may actually inhibit a story, rather than encourage it.

The question — and I’ve been dealing with this on a number of fronts — may be how to mitigate the potential harm of the story, both to myself (as the author who has to live out the story in their mind) and others (who may be affected by the author’s unintentionally repeated stereotypes). I think I’ve brought this up, before. I have a much better clue of how to mitigate the harm, in prose…probably because I’ve studied it more and have more experience with it. There’s a lot of room for explanation and internal experience in prose, which I haven’t yet learned to translate to a visual format.

But then, what to do with Art?

7 responses to “Realism vs. fantasy”

  1. Hi, so, you’ve probably seen some of my characters before on my blog. I completely understand how you feel. My characters aren’t supposed to look a particular way and I write constant elaborate posts about who they are, what they are, and why they act like that and the characters get misgendered due to people taking reality to heart.

    I love my characters and I never say that I don’t, but they’re not apart of our reality or modeled to look as such. They’re just drawings based on my imagination, my face, and tons of scenarios.

    I can understand vibing with a character because I write realistically sometimes, but to ignore what the character is for some contrived idea is obnoxious to me and is some of the reason why I’m unfocused a lot and hate posting them. I really hate posting my male characters. They always get misgendered when they’re cis men. I have a very feminine leaning style and my characters look more feminine to people than not and when I have to draw something different, I get exhausted. The people who are aware of trans and nonbinary but also just different bodies don’t comment if I correct them or they don’t believe me and the ones who aren’t aware or like it, they are confused about it and something are slightly irritated when I’m talking about something new they’re not going to look up. It only makes me want to draw cis women only, even though a lot of my characters are in the man-nonbinary-cis man-trans man region. I would love to be more of a man then a vague nonbinary that gets misgendered as a woman, but I’m not. It’s hard for me to even want gendered characters but that’s too unbelievable.🙃

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Feets!

      Thanks for your comment. I may have actually just now thought of a way around appearances being absolute in the story I’m working on…I’m surprised I didn’t think of it, before. It fits in with the theme of the story, as well.

      After having one character spending literally decades with me, I can also tell at this point that if I were to modernize them, they would choose to look a different way — given that they had the same body, they would still choose to wear that body differently.

      I’m not sure what your meaning is when you say this:

      “I can understand vibing with a character because I write realistically sometimes, but to ignore what the character is for some contrived idea is obnoxious to me and is some of the reason why I’m unfocused a lot and hate posting them.”

      Could you clarify? I’m not sure what the “contrived idea” is. I just really want to know what’s behind your statement.

      There’s so much that goes into making each of us who we are…and although our appearances don’t determine who we are on the inside, they certainly affect what comes at us from the outside (if the influence of the surrounding culture prioritizes different treatment based on different appearances). Then there is the entire learned culture angle…stuff a person picks up in childhood from their family or primary caregivers. I didn’t realize how heavily this impacted me until I began writing it out.

      I’m not living a traditional life myself, which means charting new territory and figuring out new ways to survive and thrive in a world where the “predictable route” would have been to get married and have kids and then raise them…but I’m not heterosexual, don’t ever want to be pregnant, and I’ve known I would eventually have to support myself (and maybe a partner or family) since high school. Those things put me on a different trajectory. The major trouble I’m having right now is the aging of my primary support network (my family), and not having kids to replace them…which leads to a sense of ending without a corresponding sense of beginning. That’s difficult when your family has been your “rock” for all of your life.

      I’m thinking some of this is going into the story I’m working on, and could be why there is a theme of apparent loss.

      Anyway — I got pulled away from this comment for a long moment, and lost my train of thought! 🙂 I will just post it, now. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • In the part you were confused about, it was a discussion on artist intent and the viewer.

        I picked a character I wanted for a relief print in printmaking and it was about how my character looks in a different dimension and how they dance. (They have poor proprioception so they do things like stomping or dancing very hard and I wanted to show them doing that.) My professor ignored my comment about them being genderless and called them a cute, little girl even though the character is a feminine appearing nonbinary adult because I didn’t draw all the details. I couldn’t tell her nothing. She had it dead set in her mind that my character was a little girl—a character she didn’t make.

        Some other guy during the class misinterpreted the picture to mean something about Black struggles because I made the colors dark and dreary but it was more to capture the light because where the character stomped, the ground would light up in that world.

        No matter how much I explained my intention, nobody listens.

        It’s happened in other art assignments too. I don’t personally care if people like the art, but sometimes there’s a limit to a bad interpretation. Not all art is open to interpretation. Mine isn’t. I just don’t make abstract idea art to sell to a gallery and interfere with politics. It’s a story behind it and if people don’t care or prioritize the stories or identities of these characters then they kinda are missing out on the reason why they mean so much to me or why they matter. I’m not Disney either where people can just make their fandoms around my stuff and their own interpretations and enough people care about my story. Nobody cares.

        It’s unfortunate how some people have an upbringing that makes them disrespectful and condescending to something new or almost entitled to people’s looks and identities. I tried talking to other people about that and they ignored me—but when will we hold people accountable for not trying to understand us and being disrespectful—and then, how do we get out of the situation? I’m not heteronormative even though I look like it. I don’t plan on doing anything like having kids or getting married unless I can get convinced. 🤷🏾

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wow, there was an entire post behind that sentence! Thank you for explaining it to me — it doesn’t look like it would be easy. What you’re describing sounds like it’s in the context of Concept Art. It must be really invalidating to have people not understand what you’re communicating because they have entirely different worldviews and missing concepts.

        Also: to disregard the artist’s intent for a personal interpretation…even after being told the artist’s intent…I don’t even know how to begin to unpack that, right now. I do know the effect of it in my personal life, however; it can be really harmful, until you realize that the meaning stands on its own; you are you, no matter whether other people can see it, or not. And I think the longer you keep being you, the more people can see and acknowledge it. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      • 😂 Yeah, it was a long response. It was hard to explain without writing a LOT. And yes, I make more illustrations and concept art and most art spaces that lean towards galleries hate that. I became an art major to *study* art and make my own way based off the things I learned, not to sell to some gallery.

        And, you’re right. I have to keep being me because nobody else is going to do it.😂 (but in seriousness, thank you.💕)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] This becomes more evident when referring to a movement like Orientalism (which was largely based on European fantasies of the “Near-East”), or to works like The Swing by Fragonard. Because so many (remembered) artists — and writers — in the European tradition have been male…the subjects of (European) Art History may suffer from similar biases as the subjects of (English-language) Literature (which I’ve gone off about, recently). […]


%d bloggers like this: