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Sliding Scale of Realistic vs. Fantastic

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"Captain Marvel was the first superhero comic to just throw out the notion of realism. Captain Marvel can fight dragons and meet women from the moon. Anything you can think of, this guy can do, so of course that was an immense hit, because it was taking much more advantage of the form, I think."
Grant Morrison, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle

Just as the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism determines the 'mood' of a series, this scale determines how much a particular series is unlike reality in relation to the natural laws, general conditions, and probabilities of Real Life.

There are different factors that determine how much (or little) a work adheres to "reality":

  • Stringent, minute, naturalistic sensibility is necessary for a work to be Mundane.
  • Without such strict parameters, a work is considerably Unrealistic.
  • Without even superficial elements of realism, a work's setting is Unusual compared to real life.
  • If normalcy isn't widespread within a setting, the work is outright Fantastic.
  • Should the setting be devoid of internal consistency, the work is decidedly Surreal.

There are cases where the writers believe in something which most of the audience consider unrealistic; these should be judged according to the audience' standards, for no one knows exactly what a writer believes. There are cases where they got their facts wrong. If it's obviously deliberate laziness, the work deserves a place at the fantastic end, even if it's unintended.

There are also stories in which the precise cause of things is never delineated: both a naturalistic (positivist) and a supernatural explanation is possible.

Not to be confused with Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness - a time-travel story with rigorous rules can be fairly Hard but decidedly Fantastic, for example. Sliding Scale of Like Reality Unless Noted charts the degree to which a work of fiction set in what is ostensibly a "modern", Earthly environment departs from Real Life.

A story's way of dealing with Back from the Dead can often be a very good - but not the sole or final - indicator:

The existence or non-existence of sentient extra-terrestrial life is another indicator of where a work might belong on the scale:

  • Mundane: Since there's no evidence of actual extra-terrestrial life, any issues related to them are wholly irrelevant in this work.
  • Unrealistic: Works in this category mimic real-life as we know it, and any indication on the existence of extra-terrestrial life is deliberatively left vague.
  • Unusual: Sentient extra-terrestrial life can decidedly exist, but such is not common knowledge.
  • Fantastic: The presence of sentient extra-terrestrial life, and the far-ranging implications it brings with it, can be a center pillar of the work.
  • Surreal: For no real reason, non-undercover aliens often spend your work shift across from you, and you sometimes turn into one and back.

Some works can rank one or two steps up or down this basic scale.


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There is nothing that cannot be explained by contemporary science and nothing ever happens that could not conceivably occur in Real Life as we know it. A Dream Sequence is the only way in which the otherwise hyper-realism in the work can be subverted. Darker works on this end often emphasize the irrevocable and often brutal nature of mortality, as well as the depiction of social injustices, such as exploitation of the poor on behalf of the rich. Films in this category may often be pretentious creations, often trying to be True Art. About the most 'fantastic' thing that happens here is a Contrived Coincidence or two designed to bring as much bad luck (or good luck) to the characters as possible. Science Fiction and Fantasy are by definition ruled out from belonging to this category.

Kitchen Sink Dramas typically fall into this category as do War Movies, particulary when depicting real-life wars from the perspective of those who either fought in it or the civilian population affected by it.

All Surprisingly Realistic Outcomes are at this very end of the scale.
  • This is Spın̈al Tap, to the extent that several famous metal musicians (including Ozzy Osbourne) mistook the film for a real life documentary, as almost everything that happened within it had actually happened to them at some point.

The trappings of realism are there. The technology and the settings depicted do have their counterparts in, or are based on, Real Life as we know it, but the presentation is over-the-top. On very, very, rare occasions there may happen what would reasonably seem to be supernatural events, but we are never given a full explanation of what actually did transpire. Depending on the genre, expect either lots of crazy stunts and polished dialogue, and the notion of realism will almost certainly take a back seat to the Rule of Cool, Rule of Funny, or the Rule of Sexy.

Many American Soap Operas fit here, because reality makes a lot of exceptions for the Rule of Drama.

Historical and Realistic Fiction are invariably here and above; such genres are defined by events being plausible within real life's most basic facets.
  • In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin has an anthropomorphic tiger friend who is seen by others as an inanimate stuffed tiger, and often imagines himself on fantastic adventures in Fantasy Sequences. Outside of his imagination realm, life is pretty realistic. However, there are some Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane situations that would land the strip in Unusual if they weren't ambiguous, such as the Calvin clones interacting with his parents and ambiguity of Hobbes' realness.
  • The West Wing, although it has mundane plots and settings, and thus is borderline realistic, the main characters are portrayed as over-the-top know-it-alls and the processes in which the federal government works is extremely simplified for dramatic purposes.

The world is mostly semi-realistic, but it does contain more than just a few minor fantastic hiccups. It may be 20 Minutes into the Future or contain some Applied Phlebotinum which doesn't quite fit into conventional science. Supernatural events may occasionally happen, though they may fall under Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane. Some 'hard' science fiction shows that are based on extrapolations of existing technology may fit on the upper end of this.

Horror, Low Fantasy, Magic Realism, "Hard" Science Fiction ("Softer" science fiction with only a few unrealistic elements may also qualify) are commonly on this point. Musicals that aren't fantastical generally belong here as well — some, like Hairspray and La La Land, are perfectly realistic except for the fact that people burst into song at random.

Similarly, many Fantastic Comedies feature only one fantastic element, with the rest of the setting being fairly realistic.

Works set in a World of Funny Animals or Lions and Tigers and Humans... Oh, My! world usually are Unusual if the only fantastic element is that everyone (or a good portion of the population) is an anthropomorphic animal and everything else is relatively Mundane or Unrealistic.
  • Ace Attorney (because of spirit mediums, channeling and the like)
  • Archer usually sticks closer to unrealistic, and is notable for averting several action tropes (such as Steel Ear Drums and Bottomless Magazines) but includes just enough sci-fi elements (such as robot imposters, clones, mind-control chips, and futuristic space stations) to sit here comfortably.
  • BoJack Horseman generally portrays a realistic world and character dramas, except for the fact that most of the population are sapient humanoid animals living alongside humans. This leads to several story elements that would otherwise seem fantastical, such as an underwater city for Sea-dwelling people, a chicken farm that grooms several of their own species for consumption, and a colony of giant ants living under California.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy fits here because of some slightly futuristic technology and being explicitly not set in our world. But save for a very few elements, The Dark Knight would have been unrealistic instead.
  • Doug tends to be perfectly realistic about early teen life except almost everyone is Amazing Technicolor Population, which is purely a stylistic choice that isn't seen as fantastic in-universe, and Porkchop (and sometimes Stinky) is a bipedal animal. There are still a few fantastic elements, such as the Lucky Duck Lake monster in Doug's 1st Movie.
  • Geronimo Stilton takes place in a World of Funny Mice, and the plots are fairly Unrealistic, abeilt with a few fantastic elements. The Spin-Off series, especially Spacemice, Kingdom of Fantasy, and several Thea Stilton spinoffs, do outright extend to Fantastic.
  • Grave of the Fireflies, narrated by a dead character. Take out the narrator, and the film would have been in the Mundane territory instead.
  • Jurassic Park and its sequels: Would obviously be Unrealistic if it weren't for its core premise of scientists extracting dinosaur DNA from amber and thus the ability to clone dinosaurs, which is clearly super-science in real-life.
  • Karlsson on the Roof is another Astrid Lindgren character who should fall into to this category as well. Much like Pippi, he lives in a mundane world where his ability to fly thanks to a propeller on his back is about the only unusual thing occurring.
  • Kotoura-san is very realistic except that Psychic Powers actually exist, but they are so rare that they are not recognized as scientific fact within the setting. While the culture itself is mundane, the narrative does follow the life and hardships of a Telepathic main character thus putting the story at this level.
  • Lackadaisy, whose depiction of The Roaring '20s is spot-on and the only major inaccuracy is a World of Funny Cats.
  • Pippi Longstocking, only the title character (save her father to a lesser extent) does possess any fantastic abilities while the rest of the characters and the world in which they inhabit seem to be rather mundane.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean takes place in the real setting of The Golden Age of Piracy, but incorporates a number of decidedly unreal elements. Over the course of the series, Pirates of the Caribbean drifted into the next category down as the supernatural elements became more prominent and turned the movies into a Fantasy Kitchen Sink.
  • Pushing Daisies may fit here since aside from the protagonist's power to bring people Back from the Dead, the world is generally realistic.
  • Red Dead Redemption, aside from the DLC Undead Nightmare, which moves straight into fantastic, is realistic enough storyline-wise (Unless you think there's no possible way so much crap can happen in one guy's life.) Dead-Eye may be explained away as John Marston just being a damn good shot, but what can't be explained are such things that are optional encounters, like carrying a rabbit's paw to increase the amount of loot gotten off of killed enemies, a possible blessed object reducing the chance of enemies shooting at you, and of course The Strange Man, who only responds to questions with answers that provide more questions.
  • While the broad story arc of Saints Row: The Third mostly skews towards unrealistic, it features a number of sci-fi elements and set-pieces like a TRON-esq computer world, laser weapons, hover bikes, and zombies.
  • Scooby-Doo, for the first ten years of the series, anyway, where the only fantastic elements were Scooby and his relatives (the only animals that could talk). From 1980 onwards, any movie or series became fair game for Unusual (What's New?, Be Cool!), Fantastic (Mystery Incorporated, Zombie Island, etc.) or entirely Surreal (The 13 Ghosts, Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo's Three Shorts).
  • The Seventh Seal, is set in an otherwise realistic medeival Crapsack World of Black-and-Gray Morality haunted by the plague, and in which Death is personified.
  • The Simpsons has a lot of bizarre gags that seemingly break the show's reality, but these rarely affect the episode plots, which tend to stay based in reality. Treehouse of Horror segments, however, can reach fantastic or surreal territory.
  • The Suite Life on Deck: Was Mundane to start with, but then you get plotlines like sentient robots who created themselves trying to take over the ship, having to travel into the future to prevent the ship from an alien invasion, and having to fend off an ancient curse put on you by a dead queen's crown.
  • Supernatural: The Winchester brothers face various monsters of the week including ghosts, vampires, and werewolves as well as more cosmic entities such as demons, angels, and even God himself. Yet, they still must deal with everyday realities such as finding money, food, and places to sleep. Death Is Cheap for them and their closest allies thanks to their destinies, but for most people in their universe it is final.
  • Tenet fits here (though, depending on the extent the main concept breaks your Willing Suspension of Disbelief, it could be seen as Fantastic or even Surreal).
  • Warrior Cats focuses on Partially Civilized feral cats who are capable of running a Mouse World-type society. While there are several fantastic elements such as leaders having nine lives, they are kept to the cats themselves, not affecting most of the other species.
  • Watchmen: Almost anything fantastic, futuristic or supernatural, can be (directly or not) brought down to Dr. Manhattan's powers - though they're huge. The rest is slightly unrealistic Alternate History.
  • Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches: The witch powers are an important part of the story, but they're a hidden part of the daily life on an otherwise mundane high school, and the story generally relies on Slice of Life humor and conflicts even though a lot of the characters use magic. Furthermore, magic only seems to exist on this specific high school - the rest of the world is completely normal. The college preparation arc as well as the epilogue are on the "unrealistic" end of the scale instead of "unusual" as they don't involve witch powers, but still has some over-the-top humor and a couple of cases of cartoon physics (such as Yamada lifting a gigantic boulder effortlessly)

The rules of the real world, as we know it, no longer takes precedence, or may in some cases no longer be applicable at all. Divine intervention, magic or superscience are the prevailing paradigms by which a world in this category functions. Creatures exist that shouldn't exist in Real Life, and the setting might not take place on Earth at all. What ultimately sets Fantastic apart from Surreal is that these paradigms do have a certain internal consistency.

Most Speculative Fiction, including most Comic Books, Fairy Tales, Heroic Fantasy and "soft" Science Fiction, belongs here.

Even with elements widely considered abnormal, Non-Fiction works cannot be here or below.
  • The Cars franchise takes place in a world where everyone (and animal) are Sentient Vehicles, which would be too much to be rated Unusual. The settings and plots are merely Unrealistic (with the exception of the Cars Toon, "Unidentified Flying Mater").
  • Most of the Disney Animated Canon. Beauty and the Beast is a (if not the) prime example of internal consistency in a fantastic story where the background and the basic rules concerning the magic spell which transformed the prince to a beast (and his servants to house objects), and how it can be undone are disclosed in the opening narration.
  • Doctor Who is probably between Unusual and Fantastic on the definition, because while some stuff is semi-realistic in a few episodes, the effects of half the alien technology and generally setting may as well be magic as explained by Techno Babble.
  • Happy Heroes takes place in outer space, usually on the futuristic Planet Xing which is inhabited by Human Aliens, Ridiculously Human Robots, anthropomorphic cows, and nonanthropomorphic dinosaurs. It's primarily science fiction with lots of comedy, but in one season those two elements are brought along to a medieval fantasy world, complete with a wizard as an Arc Villain.
  • The Harry Potter series, being entirely about wizardy. The tale of the three brothers, with Death itself acting as a character, takes it a little further into surreal, and is implied to be mythical even in the context of the series.
  • Haruhi Suzumiya: Haruhi's powers are borderline surreal, but it's at least based on Haruhi's mood so it's not completely rule-less; Nagato, Asahina's and Koizumi's are Fantastic; and Kyon is Mundane.
  • The Lord of the Rings and other works by J. R. R. Tolkien, which are set in a vaguely defined mythical past include (relatively uncommon) magic and fantastic creatures.
  • The Marvel Universe and The DCU. In fact, most superhero comics (and other superhero fiction, such as TV and films) where the hero and villain are explicitly powered.
  • Ranma ˝ is in-between Unusual and Fantastic (and sometimes arguably ventures into the Surreal as well): the existence of the supernatural doesn't seem to be common knowledge, except most characters seem only mildly surprised when weird things happen, and don't react as if they were exceptional, paradigm-shattering events. And there are definitely creatures that shouldn't exist in real-life.
  • Rick and Morty focuses on the titular duo traveling to bizarre alternate universes and planets using unrealistic, ambiguous science, but the show's internal logic generally remains consistent.
  • Roommates It's weird enough to be Surreal but has a defined rule-set (meaning it runs on story, trope and belief) to bind it all together.
  • Steven Universe is set in a mostly normal world, with the exception of the Gems. However, because the show focuses on a race of creatures that don't exist in real life, it qualifies as fantastic, though definitely leans closely towards unusual.
  • The Good Place is in this category, unusually for a show set in the afterlife. There are rigid rules in place, and how the show expands and subverts them is central to the plot and humor.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Of course, the Toon World is mostly surreal, but there are rules regarding the interactions of the "real" and toon worlds.

The world has (almost) no rules or internal logic whatsoever. Anything can (and frequently does) happen, often with little or no explanation. Expect things to run on nonsensoleum.

Many Gag Series fall into this.
  • asdfmovie, where very random moments, such as Anthropomorphic Food, a kid who can summon killer trains, talking turtle bombsnote , a magical flying pony, a cow pretending to be a man, and floating disembodied buttocks, simply happen without explanation
  • Felix the Cat is pure cartoon surrealism, sometimes going into outright fantasy, and is very stream of conscious and bizarre in story and tone, especially in the Silent shorts and Twisted Tales series.
  • OMORI's Headspace is a vibrant dreamscape that runs on an Excuse Plot and has almost no cohesion in its "story". Omori's main companions are repeatedly replaced with carbon copies in the process of creating an Eternal Recurrence to distract Sunny from the most painful elements of his reality.