Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Write: Realism in Fiction

The following is a response to a question about realism in fiction:

I'm basically begging for advice on how to write this so it doesn't seem fantastical or contrived. Any ideas?

  1. Realism requires research: books, internet, knowledgable people, personal experiences. As an example, things I have researched for my novel include: British accents, Muay Boran, bo staff fighting (YouTube,) magnetic fields and space travel (a friend who works for NASA,) animal behavior (a friend who studies wildlife,) names and ideas in religious history (school,) human muscles (Wikipedia,) the feeling of a stiff drink going down (I went to a bar and bought a stiff drink; asking a friend did not suffice.)
  2. Realism requires familiarity: even if you were to write speculative fiction in which you engaged in full-blown world building, your story would still written by you and would thus be crafted with your experiences and expertises operating behind the scenes. For example, the relationsihp between two of my main characters--one a female and one a male--is a conglomeration of my relationships with my female friends. Without those real-life relationships, the interactions between my female and male character would be quite different. The same could be said for everything else I've learned and experienced to this point. Even a fictional story in a fictional setting can come off as real if the author puts their shoulders back and writes with confidence. The adage "write what you know" does not mean "rehash your life in the form of a fiction." It means write with your life on the table.
  3. Realism does not require pedantry. Realism is not bogging your reader down with technical details even if you bled, sweated and cried to understand those details. The purpose of realism is to support the story. The story is about the story; everything else is secondary. It is not your job to extrapolate at every point details which have no bearing upon your narrative. I repeat: the story is about the story. Unless your story takes place in a setting that has no gravity, you do not need to explain the principle of gravity to your readers. They will assume gravity the same as they will assume your characters breathe, that they need to sleep and eat, that, even though you don't stop to unpack all the details, your characters have potty breaks.

Writing, like life, is variegated and will require you to draw upon an array of resources to do honestly and realistically.

Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.



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1 comment:

  1. Daniel, I really enjoyed this post. It is a very well written critique on how to incorporate reality in fiction; something many readers and writers of fiction don't get. They think that because it is fiction it doesn't have to read "real". They couldn't be more wrong.

    The best fiction is grounded in the reality of everyday life which form the basis of human nature: love, ambition, trust, hate, envy, honor, courage--universal truths of human nature.

    Writing what you know isn't about literal truths; it's about what you know inside. John Keats wrote about a nightingale, an urn, a season. Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field...they started with what they knew, what shimmered in the ordinary world... and took it to the extraordinary world of the imagination.

    Write what you know is to write with authenticity. Be honest. Write from a deep place, not from the surface.

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