"Why are we so hooked on realism when everything is made up?"
The general consensus was that Glenda had it right when she said that "when you make your one big SF/F assumption, the realism makes it more believable." In other words, realism sets up a context in which the suspension of disbelief becomes easier.
This doesn't necessarily mean that things have to be grim and dark (or grimdark!) in order to be realistic. We're talking things like not having the heroine of your historical romance act like a 21st century woman; not transplanting modern views into an inconsistent context.
It's hard to change "human nature" plausibly. In a sense, people want to hear human stories, stories they can relate to. It doesn't matter if the characters involved are not strictly speaking human. This is an envelope that can be pushed pretty far, since humans vary a lot, especially culturally. But beyond a certain point people are going to stop caring.
There's another important issue in the question of realism, however, and that is the question of assumptions. People tend to come into a story with a starting set of assumptions they won't challenge (and those aren't always the same). Those assumptions might be called "realism" by the person who holds them, but they don't necessarily reflect actual reality. One salient example of this is the statements that are so commonly made about people of color and their presence in Europe at different time periods. Many people out there would protest that they weren't there, that that's not "realism," when in fact they are speaking from assumption and shared narrative. People of color have been present in Europe for thousands of years, and if you want to find examples of this, and art that reflects it, there's no better place to start than MedievalPOC.
It's worth saying again: Perceived realism may simply be a shared narrative.
This above all, in my mind, is an argument for thorough worldbuilding and textual support. As worldbuilders we are always dancing with the Discourse of Expectation. The way that the words we use are understood will always be influenced by the perceptions of our own time because of the way that our expectations set up a sense of the marked and the unmarked. Whatever is normal is unmarked; anything marked stands out. But since "normal" varies so widely, what stands out to different people will similarly vary. This is one reason why you'll find people who prefer to ignore a topic like homosexuality saying that it "stands out" or "doesn't fit" in a story.
Grimdark is a genre. But do all the people really have bad teeth? Does everything smell and is everyone sick, etc. etc.? One of the problems with portraying a different reality is not making it too precious and pretty, but not making it too gross. After all, things may have been gross in that era, but if it was normal, it would not have made the same impression on the people involved that it would in our own era. There are ways to get around the problem. My own solution for tooth problems was just to assume that the government of Varin puts fluoride in the water. Teeth weren't always bad. People who ate sugar had it worse, of course. Apparently in Egypt, the upper classes had worse teeth because of stone dust in their food.
Realism will be important, but you can have realism in different kinds of scientific arenas. It's a matter of focus. Is it really critical for story purposes that the audience know exactly how this thing works? Can you justify what's going on without explaining science? Which science are you using? Physics focus will turn out very differently from linguistics focus!
It's also possible to have one big premise assumption that is in the background of a story and doesn't get any attention, such as the fact that people have faster-than-light travel. It may be counterfactual, but we're not paying attention to that right now; we're more interested in the interaction with these aliens.
When you want realism in science, you have to pay attention to how scientists talk about what they know. You also have to ask what sorts of things they actually do for daily scientific activities. What does the laboratory actually look like? Different labs contain different types of things.
I always find it worthwhile to stay true to psychology as a science, and since culture is so important to me, to anthropology/linguistics.
Don't just stick a lot of "stuff" in a story without considering the underlying system that ties everything together, its connections, and how it influences character judgment.
We're also allowed to let an author set up a bunch of premise assumptions in the background of the story, such as the presence of the wizarding world and its relationship with the Muggle world in J.K. Rowling's work.
We touched on the question of rape and violence. Is it occasional? Is it constant? In medieval times it occurred, but how often? The author gets to make decisions about how much focus to put on such actions. The answers to these questions will often vary based on level of privilege in the society. What happens to people, when and how? Are there systems that are supposed to work against it? Why are they working or not working?
Brian mentioned that medieval war was seasonal. In the autumn you needed soldiers home to take in the harvest, and in the winter there was no light, a lot of cold, and things like sea ice trapping ships in harbor.
Some good questions to ask:
If you have a constant war going on, who is growing the food?
Could you live there and raise kids?
What kind of economy does the place have?
Is there a past or a future outside the story bubble?"
Thank you to everyone who participated. Today the hangout will meet at 3:30 Pacific on Google+ and we will discuss grammar! I hope you can join us.