Every story needs to have at least some hint of realism, even if the work is fictitious. That’s because the story is fictitious, not the setting, the era or history or the minor details. That’s where the realism should be.
The idea is that a story needs to be believable and you want the reader to become immersed in the story. To achieve this, the story has to feel not just believable, but also real. And the characters need to feel real, too.
With the exception of fantasy and sci-fi novels, realism in fiction is about portraying a certain reality. And the key word to understanding this is: plausibility. The story, the characters, their motivations, the setting and the plot all need to be plausible, regardless of genre.
Readers want something that makes sense, something they could relate to, even if they’ve never experienced certain things, and that means they want some kind of realism – it’s what makes a fictional story seem real. This is known as verisimilitude.
This is why suspension of disbelief is so vital for a story to work. The reader needs to see beyond the fact that the story isn’t actually real, but that it is so good and feels so tangible that they suspend their disbelief and truly immerse themselves to the point that immediacy is created – they can relate to the characters and story; they feel the emotions and can empathise, even if it’s fantasy or a science fiction story. That’s because characters are fully drawn, multi-dimensional ordinary people struggling with relatable problems in extraordinary circumstances.
Creating realism means making use of a number of elements - creating a realistic setting, having a plausible plot, believable characters and so on.
Where setting is concerned, a place doesn’t have to be real in order to feel real. The place becomes real enough for the reader through how good your descriptions are. Lame description – or telling – doesn’t help the reader to enter the fictional world you’ve created. It has to grab them, the place has to leap from the page; descriptions need to be visceral enough for them to see the neon reflections through the rain in a grimy city or the azure sky layered with clouds over a vast expansive landscape. Description draws the reader.
Characters that feel real are characters that the reader can identify with, but don’t choose ridiculous names for your characters. Ordinary people in real life don’t have crazy names. Wild character names just detract from the fiction. New writers are prone to this gaffe, in the belief that outlandish character names make the characters stand out. Not so. The quality of writing makes writing stand out, not stupid character names.
Characters with believable actions are also important for realism – in other words, don’t have a character who, for instance, is an ordinary wife and mother of three who, inexplicably, is able to pick a deadlock with a paperclip or even hotwire security ridden cars, since most ordinary people can’t do this is real life It isn’t real, but writers often make this fundamental error. They turn their characters into experts at everything, when in fact they’re not. Unless your character is military, police, martial arts trained, a scientist or a trained expert at something else, don’t make your ordinary main character something he or she isn’t.
Realistic storylines are just as important as realistic characters. The plot has to be plausible. Readers have to suspend disbelief to an extent, but they won’t thank you if your story is too outlandish and utter claptrap. Real life is full of amazing stories, and so a fictional story, which by itself is a figment of a writer’s imagination, still needs to show that element of realism. Make your stories believable, not contrived.
Conflict also contributes to a sense of realism. Life is full of conflict and no story is complete without them, however small or huge they might be. Everyone has problems to overcome. Everyone has arguments and fall outs. Life isn’t all rose tinted clouds. So stories should reflect this with a certain amount of truth.
You can see how these elements ensure that some realism makes it into your story. Realism is important to fiction because the reader will not be able to believe the story otherwise. They won’t find be able to relate to it, they won’t be able to identify with it, nor the situation or characters, and without the reader’s interest, they won’t want to read the story.
Next week: How to construct subplots