Bookish Musings: Realism in Books – Big Things vs. Little Things


I talk a lot about realism (obviously, since I’ve got this whole unofficial series about it going on my blog), and I’ve made it pretty clear that I like things in the books I read to be pretty realistic. But so far I’ve talked about specific things, like characters and injuries. Today I want to get a little more broad.

This was actually something I noticed in a book I read lately. The book, overall, was a fairly unrealistic one. But I realized it was the details and small things that seemed to bother me the most. So then I thought back to some other books I read recently… and that does seem to be common thing for me. In a way it seems weird, but in way I think it makes sense. So let’s discuss!

Why the Little Things Drive Me Crazier


For me the thing is, if it’s a big thing that’s not realistic, then it’s almost like it becomes part of the premise. And I can accept pretty much any premise. I’m a sci-fi/fantasy reader, I accept crazy premises on a daily basis. It’s what I do.

But when details and little things are unrealistic, even if they have no significance on the plot or the characters whatsoever, it bothers me. Though I suppose it’s the fact that they have no significance that makes it even worse, because why even include them in the first place?!

Some Examples…


If an author needs to make something big somewhat unrealistic in order to create the whole story and plot, that kind of makes it justifiable. For example, I recently read a book in which a necromancer found a dead man on his way home and decided to make him a zombie and then date him. Is that realistic? No. No sane person would find a dead man and drag him home rather than call the cops just because the man is sexy. But that was the premise of the book, a necromancer and his zombie boyfriend, so I accepted it.

But there’s no way to justify including random, unimportant unrealistic things. For example, I also recently read a book in which the main character had a tattoo on the palm of her hand. I know a little bit about tattoos, but I’m no expert, so I did a quick bit of Google research. Most tattooists refuse to even do palm tattoos because they’re too difficult. Palm skin heals differently, better and quicker than other skin (something I can attest to since I used to have callused, ripped, mangled palms from gymnastics but now have not even a single scar or blemish). That means the ink often doesn’t take. Not only that, it’d be completely impractical because you’d have to keep your hand bandaged up and wouldn’t be able to use it the whole time it was healing. And it’d be painful. And it’d fade a lot faster since you use and wash your hands so much. And where exactly did she get this tattoo? She was 17 which means either her mother had to give permission (which I doubt happened considering the descriptions of her mother) or she got it illegally, but anyone giving illegal tattoos probably isn’t good enough to do one on a palm. Sorry, I’m ranting now, but do you see my point?! That unrealistic detail was so much more aggravating to me because there was no reason or explanation given for why the tattoo would be on the character’s palm which means it could’ve easily been on any other body part.

And when it comes to details that could so easily be altered without affecting the story, I feel like, if I can find the necessary information on the topic with a five minute Google search, why couldn’t the author? Did they just not care enough about their readers to bother researching?

My Overall Thoughts About Big Things vs. Little Things in Terms of Realism


Of course there are exceptions. I’m sure I’ve read about big inaccuracies or unrealistic things that were just too much for me to handle and ruined the story, and I know I’ve read about unrealistic details that I was able to brush off. Generally, one or two small unrealistic things are not an issue—they might bother me, but they won’t necessarily ruin a book. And the more I like a book, the more small things I’m willing to let slide. But when I don’t like a book, those little things start to stand out more and more. And when there end up being a whole bunch of small things, they just start to pile up and completely kill my enjoyment. Those are actually the types of books that slowly drive me crazy until I start talking to them out loud, saying things like, “Seriously? Are you kidding me?” and getting the urge to throw them across the room.

So really, I’d prefer that neither the big things nor the details be unrealistic, but big things that practically become part of the premise are easier for me to handle, and it all really depends on the individual book and what exactly the unrealistic things are.


Check Out the Rest of My Realism in Books Posts!

Realism in Books – Characters
Realism in Books – Injuries
Realism in Books – Big Things vs. Little Things
Realism in Books – Basic Necessities


Talk to me!

Do you get more annoyed when big things are unrealistic, or when details are unrealistic?
Do the big things also feel like part of the premise to you?
Can you think of any unrealistic things you've found in books lately that bothered you?


Your Thoughts


35 thoughts on “Bookish Musings: Realism in Books – Big Things vs. Little Things

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  1. Kei @ The Lovely Pages Reviews

    Thank you for pointing this out! I often highlight the attention to detail and balance an author manages to create and if I like the book I let a lot of things slide – more than I should – but the plot or the characters captivate me so I don’t let other things distract me but if I don’t like the story then those just pop out and completely ruin the whole book.

    I’m starting to believe that more often than not I’m looking for a more realistic portrayal in fiction and I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing – it’s fiction, I go in knowing stuff will not be like in real life, but still a balance would be nice.

    Great topic!

    1. Kristen Burns

      I too let a lot more slide when I let the book. When I don’t like a book, those little things make me want to scream because I’m already irritated lol. But even in good books, those little things can distract and annoy me every time they come up.

      I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Yeah, it’s fiction, but I still feel like things should be realistic within the premise unless the book is really meant not to be realistic. But if the people are supposed to be like normal, real people, then they should act that way. And same for plot and other things, etc. As Mark Twain said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” 🙂


    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s a good point. But that’s even more annoying since nothing should be in a book if it’s not necessary to the story in some way. And yeah, the zombie one was a fun book lol.

  2. Ashley G.

    I agree. Usually bigger unrealistic things are generally more acceptable because as a fantasy/sci-fi reader, that’s basically the whole plot of the book. Also, as a fantasy/sci-fi reader, the little things are what make those books feel real. The realistic feelings or relationships the characters have. The things they do and think. When they get hungry or are sleepy. Their mom making them eat food they dislike when they’re children. The little things that everyone, including these characters in an unrealistic plot setting, will go through and experience. Those little things are what make the book more real and relatable to us so when those little things fail to be realistic, especially if there’s a lot of them, the whole book becomes even more unbelievable. XD Awesome discussion!

    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s a good point, those little things and character actions are make fantasy and sci-fi books feel more real and grounded. I never really thought of it quite that way. And yeah, the more unrealistic little things there are, the harder it is to believe the book. Thanks!

  3. Lola

    I like this mini series of posts about realism as it’s one of those topics I feel strongly about. I do think you have a point that some big things are easier to accept sometimes even while they unrealistic. I read a sci-fi romance series once where there was another planet very close to earth, which is pretty much impossible, but as soon as you accept that part the rest of the book does make sense. So it bothered me less, while small things that don’t make sense can really add up and start bothering me.

    I never realized palm tattoo’s where so difficult, but yes if you know, you suddenly wonder about that and how and why she got a tattoo there. I also think that the reason those small things can bother me more is that with one big thing you can accept that one big thing and move on with the book, while if those small details that are unrealistic keep popping up, I get annoyed every time they happen and it end up feeling like a bigger thing than one big unrealistic thing.

    And when I don’t like a book those little things really can start adding up. There are also topics I know less about where it’s probably harder to spot unrealistic details even though they might be there. And ofcourse it also depends on the exact nature of the unrealistic event. Some topics or unrealistic events might bother me more than others.

    You sum it up nicely in your last sentence, I prefer as little unrealistic things as possible in my books, but often the big things are easier to ignore when you accept them and they become part of the story while the small things can really start adding up.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks! I don’t have any more realism posts planned at the moment, but I’m sure I will at some point in the future since it’s important to me too.

      Yeah, I did some research about the palm tattoos because I figured if nothing else it would just fade really easily and be kinda pointless, but it made sense about the palm skin healing differently.

      Those kinds of things do aggravate me every time they get brought up or happen though. Maybe it’s because of the way they’re, like, *supposed* to be realistic or are being passed off as completely normal whereas the big things seem more purposeful. And yeah, they do start to add up. And I’m sure the more someone knows about a topic, the more annoyed they’ll be by unrealistic things.

  4. Greg

    I think the little things probably bother me more too, depending on the story. I mean yeah as a fantasy/ scifi reader we’re going to accept weird premises as a matter of course, but it little stuff doesn’t seem right it can take you out.of the story. Like okay we’re in a medieval world and there are too many modernisms or slang. It’s annoying. But yeah it depends on the book.

    I read a book recently where an enemy was captured and they knew she was an escape/ be rescued risk, and sure enough she was… rescued. And they were surprised by it. Um, not enough guards? In the context of the story it seemed sloppy. I can think of other examples also- basically if it’s common sense and an otherwise inteliigent protagonist can’t take simple precautions or be ready I find that annoying. Stupidity for plot movement sake. That’s my biggest peeve.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly, the little things are what throw you out of the story.

      And yes! I completely agree with what you described. If even I, some random person with no expertise on the matter, can use my common sense to see that you’re making a terrible decision, not using enough precaution, etc., then the characters who are experts should really know better, and it’s unrealistic when they don’t. Stupidity for plot movement also bothers me. I even mentioned in a review I wrote recently that the MC made one decision that was just epically bad. Yeah she was reckless, but she wasn’t stupid, so she should’ve known better. But of course, plot -_-

  5. Annemieke

    I agree that unrealistic big things that become a part of the premise are easier to accept because they get some background or explanation in some way. But the small things that could be taken out never get that because they aren’t really important to begin with, so they bother me more too. In general if you give me a good (realistic) explanation I can be sold over.

    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s true, sometimes those bigger things do get an explanation whereas the smaller things are just kind of passed off as being normal with no explanation even though they’re clearly not. And it does really annoy me that the small things don’t even *need* to be there and are just disrupting the realism for no good reason!

  6. AngelErin

    Well I had a whole long comment typed out and then my page reloaded. *Cries* Let me try and remember what I said. 🙁

    I fully agree! I know we have talked before about suspending disbelief and so other things need to make sense. If I’m already going to believe that vampires and other supernatural creatures exist then the smaller details need to be realistic. The smaller details will be what drives me nuttiest too. For example I totally get what you mean about the tattoo thing. That would drive me crazy! When that happens in books I get too focused on the small things that don’t make sense and I have a harder time trying to enjoy the book. I think authors need to be mindful of this. Especially those who write fantasy/scifi/horror/paranormal books. I know this is redundant, but great discussion post! You always have the best discussions and they are always so well thought out. *Clapping*

    1. Kristen Burns

      Oh no, I hate when that happens :-/

      But yes! I do get really focused on those unrealistic little things and they just start driving me crazy and then I can’t even concentrate on the actual story anymore. It really is something authors should be mindful of as it can ruin an otherwise good book. And I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by the tattoo thing lol.

      Thanks, I’m glad you like my discussion posts so much! 😀

  7. Annika @ Hiding Books

    That tattoo thing – so annoying! I definitely agree that if it’s a big thing and it’s a part of the premise then I’m on board with it. I mean – I’ll make my peace with it or I’ll just not read the book. But little things that crop up.. they make me mad! I have this pet peeve – characters that don’t worry about money. I know that’s like SO MANY characters, but if they have no worries about money, I just go “NO. NOOOO.” But that’s just because I can’t identify if someone’s never had to worry about buying food. It’s not like it’s even an unrealistic thing, it’s just something I find unlikely because it’s not my experience. I’m a ridiculous reader!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yes, I was so distracted by that tattoo throughout the entire book. And I get what you’re saying about characters who don’t worry about money. I’m sure we all get annoyed about things that are realistic but just aren’t likely or don’t relate to us personally. For me, it’s one thing if they have some legitimate reason that they don’t need to worry, like their parents are paying for everything, but what about all these characters who don’t seem to have jobs but just spend, spend, spend?? It’s funny, I literally just wrote a review in which I mentioned something about the characters having jobs as opposed to just being inexplicably loaded with cash.

  8. Got My Book

    I don’t know how many times I’ve said to myself, “with all the unrealistic things in this book, it’s the [insert little thing] that bothered me the most.” And I think you captured why for me – the big things tend to be part of the SF/F world-building and if I can suspect disbelief then they are fine, whereas the little things are just real world things that make you say “yeah right.”

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yes, there’s always that one little unrealistic thing that just keeps nagging at the back of your mind, and you know it’s nitpicky, but it’s so distracting!

  9. Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    “The devil is in the details…” and like you, I get more bothered with small, unrealistic things than big ones, Kristen! Especially because I read a lot of fantasy, PNR and sci-fi, unrealistic is the main ingredient in those, right? However, if there is something happening that can happen in the real world, I get upset if it’s not correct, or if it’s stupid, or unrealistic…

    And I would totally do something like a google-search for the palm tattoo as well. Or if there is a fantasy story, but it happens in ‘real’ Paris. Then, two streets that aren’t very close to each other intersect in the story. I’ll totally roll my eyes and swear at the book that it’s all wrong, then. If an author is going to use a real city with real street names, look up a map for the intersections so that all your readers who travel a bit (or live in Paris) won’t get hung up on a detail like that! It really takes away from the story, too.

    Another great topic for realism, Kristen 🙂 Have a fantastic weekend!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly, I too read mostly those genres, but I still want the things that are *supposed* to be realistic to be realistic.

      Haha, I’m glad it’s not just me Googling things while reading. I can totally see why that Paris thing would bother you. Especially since that’s such an easy thing to fix or avoid. I gave up on a series earlier this year after two books because I was literally offended by how inaccurate the circus stuff was. And some of it was just using the wrong names for skills and equipment, really simple things to correct. It really does take away from the story.

      Thanks! You have a great weekend too 🙂

  10. Rachana @ Spun

    I totally agree that inaccuracies in ‘big things’ are often a part of the premise..which *can* be annoying because then it seems like the book is based on a lie? But then again, I’m just looking for a good story. In all honesty, I think it just depends on how I’m feeling when I’m reading that particular book. If I’m especially tired or I’m traveling, then I’m more likely to let things slide, just ignore them and/or plausibly not even notice them! As for the details..I mean I wouldn’t even have realized just how unrealistic palm tattoos are! Most of the time, I just go with the flow & assume the author did their research. I suppose when things like that come to light in other people’s reviews, I do feel slightly betrayed but I don’t enjoy doing tons of research myself.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I agree that sometimes the big things or an unrealistic premise can be annoying. It really depends. And yeah, I’m probably also more likely to let things slide if I’m in a good mood. Then again, maybe not? Certain unrealistic things just bother me regardless lol. I’m sure there are plenty of things I don’t even notice sometimes though, just like you wouldn’t have noticed the palm tattoo thing.

  11. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    Ha, this makes perfect sense. Big things can always be written off as a quirk of the story. Something big signifies you should suspend disbelief and accept that this is just a part of the book but little things which are unrealistic just feel like the author hasn’t put any effort to research these things. It may just be that this small thing is something which has slipped the net and the author hasn’t even realised that small detail is unrealistic, but that’s how your brain ends up seeing it regardless.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly. The big things come across as being more purposeful on the part of the author while the little things just seem like laziness (if they didn’t want to bother researching) or convenience (if they wanted a simple way to make the plot work or something). I agree an author may not even realize something is unrealistic, but that doesn’t actually stop me from being annoyed by it since it’s still unrealistic whether they realized it or not lol.

  12. Nicola

    I think you’ve perfectly identified why the small things can be more annoying than the bigger ones, because it’s easier to accept a strange premise and move on than to have lots of little things (or one or two over and over again) crop up constantly.

    That was what bothered me about Outlander, actually. Magic stones? I can buy that. Making up shit about how Scots law and British citizenship works? Okay, if it’s the only way you can think of to get Claire and Jamie married. But people driving CARS around Scotland right after the war, everyone being Catholic, clan tartans a good century before they existed, people in the Highlands speaking something closer to the language of the Lowlands? That was all just too much 😉 In the end I DNFed because of all those little things that just didn’t add up. I could handle a few big ones for the sake of the narrative, but like you I need the small things to be researched.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly, if the big ones are necessary to make the story, I can accept that and move on. But those little ones, it’s like they’re trying to passed off as normal, but they’re not! And especially when there’s a whole bunch of unrealistic little things, like you described in Outlander, it just starts to drive me nuts. Especially when they’re often so unnecessary.

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  14. Michelle @ Pink Polka Dot Books

    I totally agree!!! It’s okay when it’s intentionally part of the story, but when it’s just due to lack of research it drives me mad. Like when a book is set in a certain time period and I KNOW that they would not have the things that the characters are using in the book. Unless it’s explained that they have those things because of a special reason, it’s a mistake on the author’s/editor’s part. Cool post!!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yes, exactly. The big things seem more purposeful whereas the small things seem like they’re trying to be passed off as realistic even though they’re not. And when it’s a lack of research causing it, especially if it’s something easy to research, it feels like the author just didn’t care about their readers enough to bother. That might be a little harsh, but that’s how it feels, you know? Thanks!

  15. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I definitely think you’re right about this. It’s the difference between a plot point that’s not MEANT to be realistic and a detail that the author just didn’t know enough about. I can suspend disbelief for one, but the other aggravates me!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, exactly. Although, I’m not always ok with something being unrealistic simply to make it a plot point and make the story go where they want it to. I guess it really depends.

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