Considering how realism is constructed in narratives is important in identifying how they persuade and how they might represent reality. This essay focuses on the theoretical approach narratology, which is the study of ‘how narratives make meaning’ (Barry 2009, p. 214). What follows is a comparison and analysis of some different styles of narrative, such as, fiction and non-fiction. The purpose is to explore the difference between reality (events that actually happened), and realism (representations of reality) (Pope 2012, p. 249). This essay seeks to answer the questions: what makes a narrative persuasive? And how can a narrative represent reality? Answering these questions requires exploring multiple facets of narrative, such as; genre conventions and perceptions, for instance with journalism; ‘focalisation,’ or how the story is told and the point of view (Barry 2009, pp. 222–230); distance from reality, the plausibility of events; and the readers opinions and predispositions.
The narratology definitions of ‘story’ and ‘plot’ as presented by Peter Barry (2009, p. 215) are that: the ‘story is the actual sequence of events as they happen[ed] … with nothing left out’ while the ‘plot is those events as they are edited, ordered, packaged, and presented in what we recognise as narrative.’ This is important for this essay—and narratology—because a plot (or narrative) cannot truly be reality, but it can contain representations of reality through realism.
Disch (1993, p. 669) describes narrative as ‘a consensus-building practice that serves to hand down “a common understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life.”’ Without narratives people would not be able to comprehend and model potential situations, they would not be able to ‘predict cause-and-effect relationships’ or to navigate social interactions (Dahlstrom 2013, p. 13615). From a biological standpoint narratives are ‘thought to represent the default mode of human thought, proving structure to reality and serving as the underlying foundation for memory’ (Dahlstrom 2013, p. 13615). Rob Pope (2012, p. 251) states that ‘Reality is always in some measure an effect of discourse.’ Even if they cannot completely depict reality narratives as discourse are certainly important to human development and understanding of reality.
A distinction is usually made between fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction, like fiction, is still narrative that is mediated and constructed by a writer. However, non-fiction is considered more credible due to its factual representations of reality (Sklar 2013, p. 13; Tulloch 2014, p. 629; Weber & Wirth 2014, p. 140). While in fiction the reader’s perception of realism is in terms of the internal—and sometimes external—consistency and logic of the narrative (Weber & Wirth 2014, p. 140).
Each genre has different requirements. Olivia Frey (cited in Bloom 2003, p. 286) notes that the academic, objective, approach to writing often seems adversarial by establishing ‘the values of one’s own idea [while] … demonstrating the weakness or error in the ideas of others.’ And the purpose of ‘Logical-scientific communication’ is to ‘provide abstract truths that remain valid across a specified range of situations’ (Dahlstrom 2013, p. 13614). This differs greatly from creative narratives exploring an individual’s experiences. Instead of disseminating knowledge which can be used to explain specific circumstances, creative narratives start with the specific circumstances so that knowledge can be gleaned from them (Dahlstrom 2013, pp. 13614–13615). This means that narrative can be used to teach audiences lessons about reality even without faithfully depicting it. Communication using narrative ‘crafted with emotion and logic’ helps audiences make sense of ‘disparate facts’ and can motivate people to take action or change their behaviour (Randall & Harms 2011, p. 21).
Lynn Bloom (2003, p. 278) says that some writers of journalistic non-fiction are driven by an ethical obligation to tackle important subject matter in order ‘to make sense of things that don’t make sense; to set the record straight; [or] to tell a good a good story’ (Bloom 2003, p. 277; Dahlstrom 2013, p. 13615; Disch 1993, p. 666; Tulloch 2014, p. 629). But what if there are conflicts between setting the record straight and telling a good story, or conflicts between this nebulous ‘larger truth’ and reality?
Some writers believe that embracing subjectivity brings the writer closer to telling a true and honest account, and with audiences identifying more easily with personified representations this may benefit persuasion (Dahlstrom 2013, p. 13616). A close proximity to an author-as-narrator can provide a more intimate and direct view of events or can merely indicate an author’s ego and inability to convey characters other than themselves (Bloom 2003, p. 282; Tulloch 2014, p. 630). In contrast to close individual subjectivity is a sociological perspective, which Laurel Richardson (1988, p. 201) describes as ‘a collective story,’ a narrative exploring the ‘sociological protagonist’ and considering the broader society, culture, and history in order to ‘tell the whole story and the stories context.’ But this would still be effected by the writer’s subjectivity; no amount of research or collaboration with other writers could truly tell the entire story.
The degree of realism can be controlled by the author, subtly or overtly. Robin Hemley (cited in Bloom 2003, p, 278) says that ‘the only absolute defense’ for creative changes in non-fiction ‘is that the facts stated must be provably true.’ While Lee Gutkind (cited in Bloom 2003, p. 278) asserts that no details should be changed, and that to do so is to damage the author’s credibility. However, changing details is ultimately up to the writer’s discretion, and some might want to tell the story ‘the way it ought to have [been] rather than the way it’ was (Bloom 2003, p. 278). This may seem to make room for dishonesty, but without close attention to the difference between reality and realism any dishonesty can be hard to measure. Generally audiences do not consciously scrutinise texts closely, and some are reluctant to disregard personal accounts of events regardless of whether scepticism is justified (Fields 1989, p. 45). Patrick Weber and Werner Wirth (2014, p. 140) showed in their research that—if audiences are seeking entertainment—it is less likely for ‘exaggerated portrayal[s]’ and idealised characters to be detrimental to audience attitudes.
When accounting for human fallibility and flawed memory does an objective reality even exist? And considering the artifice of narrative would it be possible to represent an objective reality? (Craig 2014, p. 449; Pope 2012, pp. 249–250). It is possible, however, to become mired in the realities constructed by narratives and to overlook their ‘fictionality’ (Sklar 2013, p. 14). As Rob Pope (2012, p. 249) says: ‘the kind of literary and aesthetic realism you prefer very much depends upon the kinds of reality you recognise and value.’ Audiences often understand narratives in terms of their ‘real-life knowledge’, their ‘media experience’ and the ‘story-world knowledge’ they accumulate from the narrative (Weber & Wirth 2014, p. 127). Meaning a reader’s perception of reality can inform their choices of—and understanding of—narratives, which could arguably feed back into their perceptions of reality.
A persuasive narrative is one that effects the attitudes and behaviours of audiences even when not expressly making an argument (Weber & Wirth 2014, p. 125). Audiences are either looking to be taught something, or to be entertained (Disch 1993, p. 666). A narrative needs to appeal to both the rational and emotional desires of the audience in order to succeed (Randall & Harms 2011, p. 23). The stories that persuade readers are most often the ones they can relate to, but the unimaginable and the strange also tend to be memorable (Craig 2014, pp. 444–445). At the extremes the narrative will struggle, for example, if it is lecturing the audience, and overly didactic; or seemingly inconsequential, and overly entertaining (Weber & Wirth 2014, p. 125). Ultimately ‘The burden of a successful narrative is on … [the author] to transfer meaning rather than on the audience to receive and interpret it’ (Randall & Harms 2011, p. 22).
Howard Sklar (2013, p. 10) notes that ‘the way we come to know characters … is not so unlike the way we come to know people, in person and particularly through works of non-fiction.’ The audience becomes invested in a narrative by sympathising or empathising with the characters, which itself requires a balance between fiction and realism (Sklar 2013, pp. 11–12; Weber & Wirth 2014, p. 126). It is also possible for the author’s empathy for a character to come through and inspire the reader to also feel empathy (Sklar 2013, p. 52). The point of view can impact the empathy that audiences feel for characters and their situations. The narratology notion of ‘focalization’ deals with whether the audience is presented with a close/distant character/narrator, perspective (Sklar 2013, pp. 48–50). However, certain narratives can cause audiences to get ‘too close to view the character’s reality objectively,’ meaning they may lose sight of the narrative’s artifice and afford it more credibility (Sklar 2013, p. 48–50).
Patrick Weber and Werner Wirth (2014, p. 127) identify ‘violations of realism’ as one of the main detriments to persuasiveness. Yet ‘Audiences may tolerate perceived implausible or counterfactual elements and inconsistencies’, although this depends on the severity of the ‘violations of realism,’ such as if key elements of the narrative disagree with reality (Weber & Wirth 2014, pp. 127–128). Inconsistencies of realism can be mitigated by an audience’s suspension of disbelief, where judgement is held back due to audience investment in the story. However, not all audiences are the same, and an individual’s suspension of disbelief will be dependent on different aspects, such as their cultural, political, and social position; what their beliefs are; and what their interest is in the narrative (Weber & Wirth 2014, pp. 126–130). Consequently a narrative can be interpreted in ‘different ways by different readers’ (Richardson 1988, p. 201). The scientific perception of narrative sees it as potentially unethical with its manipulative techniques, room for bias, and tendency to generalise (Dahlstrom 2013, p. 13614). However, narratives are undeniably effective at communicating to audiences (Randall & Harms 2011, pp. 22–24; Weber & Wirth 2014, p. 125). If questioning what is true leads to keeping only the facts and throwing away the rest the consequence is to lose anything else the narrative has to offer (Fields 1989, p. 48).
To understand how narratives represent reality, and to examine their persuasiveness, one needs to consider elements such as, genre, point of view, author, and audience. Further research is required to fully understand the nuances of reality in narratives and audience persuasion. It was not in the scope of this essay to thoroughly detail suspension of disbelief, audience choices, subjectivity vs objectivity, or sociological narratives. However, the aspects of narrative covered—author, genre, and point of view—each impact on the persuasiveness or perceived reality of a narrative. Although narrative cannot truly depict reality, writers can construct varying degrees of realism. The potential for audience investment in characterised and emotional accounts cannot be denied, but the writer needs to maintain a balance between facts and subjectivity so as to avoid an overly emotional, overly didactic, or obviously fabricated narrative.
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