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A common bit of advice in fiction writing is to “write realistic characters” or “realistic motivations” or “realistic conflicts” or “realistic dialogue.” But what does this really mean? How do we balance realism in fiction with, well, fiction?
The reason for this advice is that many new authors err on the side of not enough realism. They write super-hero characters, villains with motivations that make no sense (e.g. wanting to destroy the world that they themselves exist in), nonsensical plots full of holes, and settings that could never exist, even in their own fantasy world.
I like to think of realism in fiction as a spectrum:
Now hold up, you say, I’m writing contemporary literary fiction about real people, none of that fantasy or sci-fi business, thank you very much. In fact, this spectrum isn’t about genres—it’s about how you design your characters, plot, and setting.
Going with the contemporary genre, let’s say your protagonist is an American suburban dad who likes to barbecue on the weekends and generally holds middle-of-the-road views on most things. He’s very realistic—there are millions of people just like him—but also rather dull. People will say he’s a stereotype, or just say he’s boring. You’re too far to the left side of the spectrum.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re writing about that same character, but you also make him a perfect dad, a perfect employee, even a perfect barbecuer, and also he secretly fights crime at night with body armor and an AK-47 that somehow never runs out of bullets or causes hearing loss. Now we’re way too far on the right side of the spectrum.
Let’s find something in the middle. He’s not a perfect dad and he struggles to connect with his teenagers. His boss is after him because he’s always tired at work and barely does enough not to get fired. His wife is worried about him. Why? He stays up all night staking out drug houses and collecting evidence that he sends anonymously to police to help clean up his neighborhood. Last night, he witnessed something that changed everything.
Okay, now we’ve got an interesting story with some elements of realism and fiction. Realistic: he’s not a perfect dad, employee, or husband. Unrealistic: he’s way more brave than most suburban dads ever would be. But because of the realistic first part, the reader can suspend their disbelief about the second part.
Regardless of the genre, this balancing act is key to writing compelling characters: mixing realistic components with unrealistic ones. I like to think of it as a bell curve. Most suburban dads are going to be modestly brave. They’ll stand up to protect their home, their family, maybe the dog, but that’s about it. That’s the middle zone, and these people are pretty boring protagonists because they’re too realistic.
In the orange zone on the right, you have the dads who are braver than average. They’re less common though, maybe one in a thousand or one in ten thousand. These are the people that make good protagonists.
In the red zone, you have the freaks: suburban dads who are taking anabolic steroids or have mood disorders or build Gatling guns in their basements. They’re one in a million, or more. They might seem to be a good protagonist for this story, but they’re so unrealistic and they’ll make the reader roll their eyes. That’s melodrama.
On the left side, in the green zone, you’ve got the wimpy suburban dads. They’ll run from a fight, maybe even pee their pants. Resist the urge to make this person the protagonist. Maybe you want to do a “wimpy to strong” self-confidence character arc because as an introverted writer, you’ve struggled with self-confidence yourself. The problem is the reader probably won’t keep reading long enough to see the development. These types of characters make great foils to your protagonist, but they usually aren’t protagonist material by themselves.
For example, consider Marty McFly’s dad George McFly in the first Back to the Future movie—the cool, confident hero Marty helps the wimpy George complete his character arc. Would you want the dorky, uncool George as the protagonist for the entire movie? Poke out my eyeballs now, please.
What makes characters unforgettable? They all have at least one of the following characteristics—grit, wit and “it.”James Scott Bell
We don’t tell stories about the average person, or the below-average person. We tell stories about people who are exceptional in some way (albeit not impossibly so). Usually, it’s that Grit, Wit, and It that Bell writes about. Here are some examples:
- Edmond Dantès is a common ‘everyman’ who shows incredible grit and determination in The Count of Monte Cristo and transforms into something more.
- Charlie Brown is a mopey guy, but he’s a witty observer of life.
- Forrest Gump had below-average intelligence, but he was exceptional about everything else—he’s got that mystical “it”, the cool factor.
Now wait, Charlie Brown is a mopey guy. Didn’t you say not to have your main character be like that? In general, yes, this is good advice. However, you can get away with a sad or wimpy main character if you give them enough wit or coolness (“it”) to make up for it.
A good example is the cowardly wizard Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. He makes up for his un-protagonisty wimpiness by being cool, clever, and so hilariously incompetent that we love to read about the problems his cowardice always gets him into.
Plots are the same as characters: they must be balanced between the mundane and the ridiculous. Think about your favorite book or movie that’s set in the real world—is it truly realistic?
For me, that’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Is it realistic that a young man is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit? Sure, it happens sometimes. But is it also realistic that he also escapes his prison? It happens, but not often. What about finding a huge buried treasure and then using it to get revenge on the people who accused him? Okay, that’s not really probable, but it could happen, and it sure is cool.
Any good plot can be deconstructed that way: it could happen, even if it may not be very likely. As with characters, you want to be on the far side of the bell curve, but not the very end. You’re telling a story that is exceptional but still plausible. It’s one in a thousand, maybe one in a million. Not one in five, not one in five hundred billion.
So how do you tell exceptional stories? First, make sure your story has a conflict that is central to it. Even “slice of life” stories should have some kind of conflict, unless you are going for the ultra avant garde. Second, make sure the conflict matters—does the main character have meaningful stakes in the outcome of the conflict? Third, avoid relying on coincidences, make sure actions have realistic (within the story world) consequences, and watch out for plot holes and logic problems.
One common problem on the right side of the spectrum is characters who become “murder hobos,” going from place to place and killing everything. In real life, killing has a great toll on the psyche and also comes with serious legal consequences. But often, these characters just “get away with it” and the plot continues on.
Another common one is the action hero whose gun never runs out of bullets, and who can somehow still hear just fine after firing of 300 rounds. Hearing damage is permanent and cumulative!
Character motivations are also important. When your character makes a decision and takes an action that affects the plot, there should be a motivation for it, otherwise the plot is nonsensical. For example, if a key plot point relies on a priest violating his sacred vows, he’d better have a darned good reason for making that decision—emotional, logical or otherwise.
On the left side of the spectrum, you have stories that “aren’t actually stories.” This is a frequent problem with new writers who are free-writing. First comes the “get out of bed scene,” then the “bathroom mirror scene,” then the “drive to work scene,” that sort of thing. Or maybe it takes the form of a long rambling discussion between two characters. Make sure your story has a conflict, and the characters have a stake in how it turns out.
A word on coincidences. Your reader is generally a lot more tolerant of coincidences, strokes of luck, divine intervention, chance meetings, dodged bullets and so forth at the beginning of the story, as part of the plot setup, than they will be as the story progresses. If you save your characters at the end of the final climax because the villain’s gun jams, you’re gonna get a lot of groans from readers.
What about setting? You might say, I’m writing fantasy, my setting doesn’t have to be realistic!
Doesn’t it though? Often what is missed in unrealistic settings is a lack of logical follow-through.
A classic example is a culture that uses of gold as a currency. If a dagger costs twenty gold coins, then gold must be more common than steel. So why aren’t they using steel as a currency instead of gold? Those gold coins had better be very, very small!
Another example is the “city in the desert” with no consideration of how they get water or food (same goes for the mountaintop fortress!). Another is the story set in Manhattan that ignores the absurd amount of time it takes to get anywhere during rush hour. There are also those perfect utopias where nothing ever goes wrong, or perfect dystopias with not even a morsel of happiness—even in a utopia, there is complexity.
Another common issue on the right side of the spectrum is a setting that is so fantastic, interesting, or cool that it steals the spotlight from the characters and plot. For example, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory comes close to this. When the heroes get inside the factory, it gives the reader a superb sense of wonder, but it is almost over the top to the point where the factory is, for a moment, more interesting than the story or characters. Often this problem is caused by not spending enough time on characters and plot and far too much time worldbuilding.
On the left side of the spectrum, you have dull, ordinary settings that don’t do much. Whether it’s real life on a farm, or a farm in a fantasy world, or a farm on Mars Colony, we’ve seen enough farms! (There are always exceptions of course). Make sure your setting is “cool”, that it is tied to the plot, characters and theme in a meaningful way.
In the middle, you have the “rule of cool” — if it’s cool, do it! In general, this is good advice for characters and plot too, as long as you remember to stay somewhere in the center of the realism spectrum.
A good example of a cool setting is the Harry Potter series. Wizarding school could have been in a gray flat-roofed cinder-block complex of buildings, like an average American high school. But having the school at an ancient castle was way more fun, and it provided a lot of plot, character, and theme opportunities. If you’re choosing between a bland setting and a cool one, pick the latter.
In addition to the issues above, one of the biggest “setting” trouble spots for writers is contrasting the social norms of today versus the culture you are writing about. For example, historical fiction is set before the current era. The further back you go, the more objectionable the average person’s views become to modern readers.
This is particularly a problem for women, because prior to basically now, the overwhelming majority of women were essentially kept as pets or slaves. If you write realistic historical fiction, women had it bad, and it’s rather miserable. A protagonist who holds “correct views of the time” is, to modern readers, a monster.
On the other hand, if you make your protagonist someone who holds modern views, this quickly becomes unrealistic—or at least, unlikely—and it gets more unrealistic the further back you go. A popular solution is to ignore this stuff entirely (I don’t have to worry if my story only has men in it!) but this ignores the plight of women, racial injustices, class struggles, human rights, etc. in a way that isn’t fair to those people who lived through it.
Again, the solution here is balance. As the author, your job isn’t to sugarcoat history, nor is it to write some hyper-realistic horror-show that just makes everyone depressed. You’ve got to celebrate the good things and acknowledge the bad. Rather than getting on a soapbox and moralizing, present the world as it is and let the characters grapple with the issues themselves.
This is likewise true for fantasy and science fiction, where your society might be more or less progressive than the current era. You have to reconcile the modern reader’s reaction and experience with the story you want to tell.
For example, if your story is in a dystopian future where everyone grows their genetically modified children in tanks in a lab then treats them like cattle to harvest their organs, and the protagonist is perfectly okay with this, don’t be surprised if today’s readers don’t like it.
A more marketable way to explore the ramifications of this idea would be to have the main character begin with a “normal person’s” views on this issue (e.g. in The Hunger Games, Katniss isn’t part of the society that approves of the games). Then have that main character come to terms with this strange experience. The reader will feel much more at home in that situation, even if they may not agree with where your protagonist finally lands on the issue.
I did say something about dialogue at the beginning, didn’t I? Well, this one is a bit easier.
Realistic dialogue isn’t exactly like real speech. We cut out all the filler, such as:
- um and uh and most other non-word noises,
- all the throat clearing words (“Well, y’know”),
- circular conversations where people repeat themselves redundantly,
- longwinded stories and anecdotes that often go nowhere,
- rambling monologues without interruption,
- the time spent struggling to understand each other’s ideas (Q&A),
- and the small talk (“how’s the weather”).
Why do we cut it? Because this slows down pacing and bores the reader. Leaving all that in puts you on the left side of the spectrum here.
On the right side of the spectrum, you have “stilted” dialogue that’s unlike real speech as someone walking on stilts is unlike someone walking without them. Examples include:
- not enough contractions,
- stiff textbook grammar,
- getting straight to the point on awkward issues instead of speaking about them circuitously,
- always speaking logically (or always speaking emotionally), and
- trying to write out people’s accents.
The easiest way to study this is to read some good books and see how each line of dialogue matters to the story and is carefully selected by the author to advance the plot or reveal character or setting.
Alright, that’s it! I know it’s a lot, but just remember “real eyes realize real lies”. Why? Cause it’s cool!