4 Tips for Attaining Realism in Fiction
Chapter 8 “From Story to Art” – Section 6 “Realism"
“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”-Tom Clancy
When I was in college, I had a professor who explained to me the virtue of embellishing a story when telling it to others for the sake of entertainment. He explained that when you tell someone something that happens to you, it will always be more dull than it was when you were actually there. And since the purpose of telling someone a story like that is their own personal enjoyment, it is important to embellish it enough so that they feel the same things that you felt when those events happened to you. In other words, you replicate the truth of feeling, over the truth of strictest fact. A similar principle applies to writing a novel. The goal is not to accurately portray reality through fiction, but to allow the audience to feel the story through a sense of realism.
Tip 1: Create realism in dialogue, without the clumsiness of reality.
While there are gifted orators and charismatic people who seem to always speak with eloquence, they are not the majority. Most humans speak in broken grammar, a host of slang and jargon, in sentence fragments, with generic language, and with lots of verbal fillers. And while some writers try to replicate that, it is usually not a realistic recreation. To replicate real human dialogue, while absolutely fine for interpersonal communication, would look bland and broken on paper.
For whatever reason, we typically have higher expectations for the written word than we do for the spoken word. We want the written word to sound like it's realistic, not to actually be realistic. For example, we may want a teenage character to talk like a teenager, but most readers would be bored or appalled if they had to read an entire book with the texting lingo that some teens use in their day-to-day lives. I mean, just imagine reading a book where all the dialogue consisted of correctly spelled text messages.
The solution is to write dialogue in full sentences, with proper grammar, and with a variety in language. We can replicate reality in speech by adding a verbal filler, a sentence fragment, or a colloquial phrase here and there for color. Some authors are even able to implement broken words and regional dialect with efficiency. And, of course, not all of your characters' dialogue should be of modernized Shakespearean quality. But you want it clean, fresh, and articulate enough to actually keep your audience's attention while giving just enough realism to make it a balance. There is no sure-fire guide for accomplishing this; but it is something to work with your writing partners and test-readers on.
Tip 2: Look past the apparent reality of one-dimensional characters.
Within the context of reality, there are people who seem overwhelmingly one-dimensional. For example, there are selfish people who are purely motivated by personal gain, who will step on anybody to get ahead, and who demonstrate no redeemable qualities in their lives. In fiction, however, this does not work. A reader's perception of reality changes within the context of a story. Even if they know people who are like this, they cannot accept or believe in someone that vacuous, stupid, or shallow, when closely observing their lives, thoughts, and experiences as you do in fiction.
The solution, then, is to look through the reality we can see, using empathy and imagination. As writers, we take efforts to really look at those sorts of people and to find some amount of depth in the shallowness that they demonstrate. We imagine ourselves being them, and try to figure out what sorts of terrible things would have to break inside of us, in order for us to be like them. If you want a practical example of this, check out the manga, “Battle Royale.” It contains dozens of seemingly one-dimensional characters and takes the time to demonstrate what made them so or what hidden depth lies where nobody can see.
Please note that while I do not claim to have insight into the soul of every human, I do personally believe that there is depth hidden inside of all humans. By this, I do not mean that there is a sweet person just waiting beneath the surface of every terrible person out there if you get to know them. I simply mean that I believe in the complexity of human experience, that there is a story behind the identity of every person. And as an incidental side-effect of this practice, maybe empathizing with seemingly shallow characters as writers can teach us to seek the depth in seemingly shallow people in our real lives.
Tip 3: Create small pockets of realism in your plot, without throwing plot out the window.
The reason that we have a structured and traditional method for creating a plot, is not because it's what the storytelling police have told us to do. Plot is the structure we use in order to make sure that our story has a balance of flow, tension, development, and a number of other things. It is our blank canvas, our solid base for painting the story we wish to tell. For an example of the sort or formula, plot outline, and plot-points I'm referring to, please click here. (Though note that there are a number of methods and that you can create one that works best for you).
That being said, we still do not want our stories to always be perfectly formulaic. There is nothing wrong with a perfectly structured, formulaic plot; but breaking it a little can do a lot to breathe fresh life into our story. A break in the traditional structure or formula can make the story feel more real to the audience, even if on a subconscious level. Please note that this isn't a necessity, just something worth trying if you feel your story needs it.
To accomplish this, we can do a number of things. We can create an additional plot-point, we can replicate a plot-point, we can cut a plot-point, or we can swap up their order. We can even look at what generally happens a plot-point (like a character learning a lesson and growing), and interject realism by breaking the convention (like having the character learn nothing). Note that the more isolated and specific we make our alterations to the traditional plot outline, the more powerful they can become. In other words, an audience will notice and be impacted more by a break in traditional plot, if the rest of the story falls within convention.
Tip 4: Utilize realism to empower fantasy, without letting reality become an obstacle to imagination.
I've talked before about realism in world-building, and particularly in fantasy and science-fiction. The problem is that, when people hear this, it tends to be confused for making fiction look more like real life. And that's often not what we want as writers; we use fiction to explore beyond the realms of reason and fact. But the realism we aim for in fiction does not require you to make your story less magical or fantastic.
Within reality, there are truths … which can be understood as laws or rules. These include the law of gravity, the limitations of human mortality, the repercussions of actions, and the limits to what we can accomplish in our lifetimes. As a species, we have abided by these truths for so long that their presence triggers a sense of realism in our brains. The reason we want realism in our stories is to trigger those same senses, in order to more fully draw our audience in and make them feel like the story is real. In other words, realism fuels the sense of fantasy and even escapism that our audience can feel.
An example I've often used is Lewis Carroll, whose works seem as divorced from reality and conventional logic as a book can be. And yet his works draw us in with a sense of realism, internal logic, and gravity. The way he accomplished this is through realism in world-building. Though the reality of Wonderland is almost completely divorced from factual reality, it creates a very structured logic of its own.There are unspoken laws and truths in Wonderland, limitations to what Alice and the other characters can do. And there are repercussions to their actions, even if those repercussions only make sense in that world. By implementing this internal realism, Carroll is able to empower the sense of fantasy, magic, and creativity. Likewise, you can empower your own stories by focusing on the internal logic and realism in your work.
Write-a-Novel Exercise 8.6
Take the chapter you previously selected for revisions, and reread it. Look for dialogue, characterization, world-building, and plot events where you think you veered too far from realism, by either making it too realistic or too absurd. Note that this is an arbitrary judgment and that such alterations should only feel necessary if making the edit would better serve your story. Make your edits, and then submit it to the group for review, discussing what you changed and why.
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When I write dialogues, usually I care a little less for grammar than when I write the rest of the text. After all, characters still need a unique speech pattern.
Regardless world building, I like to think to the game 'the sims 2 (the best of the serie). The aim of this game is just living your life from birth to death. You can control all characters in the game, they go to school, go to job, pay taxes etc. Children think to play, teenagers think about first romantic experiences etc.. but the world has fantasy elements like aliens, vampires, fairies etc... I think is this that makes the sims a funny game.
Yes, the Sims has a world that is very internally consistent.