Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Realism is a frequently praised aspect of fiction, and is one that’s difficult to define. If your story was true to life then it would be without order, full of lengthy digressions, and potentially lacking any kind of meaningful conclusion.
So what do readers mean when they say they want realism, and what can authors do to give it to them?
In this article, I’ll answer these questions, busting the myth that readers want realism in their fiction and describing what they’re actually after.
Most of the time when readers say a story lacked realism they actually mean it wasn’t internally consistent. There’s a big difference between the two ideas: the first means that the events you describe need to be believable in the context of the real world, the second means that the events you describe need to be believable within the context of your fiction.
Readers very quickly learn the rules of an unfamiliar world, whether these rules are scientific, social, or otherwise. Likewise they’ll pick up on the nature, personality, and history of every character you show them. The trade you make in exchange for this attention to detail and suspension of disbelief is the responsibility of making these details matter.
If you establish a character as miserly and then have them perform a charitable act for no clear reason, their actions will appear unrealistic in the context of the reader’s understanding of your book. Similarly, if you say a computer is unhackable, or a spell impossible to cast, then the reader will feel irritated and betrayed if these facts are later contradicted.
Internal consistency most commonly falls down when a writer hasn’t finalized their ideas, and runs into a problem in the plot. Having not nailed down certain details they add in an occurrence or action to circumnavigate the problem, and then come to rely on this moment for the plot to make sense even once it contradicts other elements of the story.
The best way to avoid this kind of issue is to decide on concrete rules for your world, and detailed backstories for your character. Write them down and keep a list, an Encyclopedia if necessary, so that you never contradict yourself.
One way in which readers may demand actual ‘true to life’ realism is in timescales of consequence and reaction. For example, if a city is destroyed in a huge battle, it does not feel realistic that it will be rebuilt within the year. Such work takes decades in the real world. A convenient fix – having the protagonist fix the problem via magic or some other enhanced method – might seem like a good idea initially, but then the reader has to ask how grim the problem was in the first place if the damage can so easily be reversed.
The most common issues with timescales of consequence are found in emotional reactions. Real life deaths can affect people for the rest of their lives, completely devastating them for weeks, months, and even years.
If you kill a character off to the dismay of the protagonist, but then have them rally and move on within the day, many readers are going to cry foul. This doesn’t mean every disaster in a character’s life has to be followed by a week of mourning, it just means the issue has to be addressed.
Raising the idea that a character will mourn later, or has temporarily overcome their grief, presents a more believable way to progress things. Really skilled authors will slip in some foreshadowing earlier in the story to show the protagonist is the type of person who is able to do this.
Realistic dialogue is impossible. The way real people talk is unsuited to the written form, full of errors, hesitations, and unfinished thoughts.
There is, however, a happy middle-ground between real speech and stilted dialogue. A few hesitations, self-corrections, and odd phrasal choices will go a long way. While I wouldn’t advise using an accent, employing contractions and colloquialisms to craft a recognizable voice is often effective.
“Please take it,” says I, “and don’t ask me nothing—then I won’t have to tell no lies.”
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
There’s no easy way to learn the kind of structure that makes dialogue seem true to life, but for those willing to take some time it can be done. There are countless websites chronicling the way in which speech is structured, and what different structures communicate about different people. Alternatively you can listen to conversations, transcribe them, and then try to rewrite them in a way that hits the ‘realism’ sweet spot.
Of course if your story is set in a recognizable world, whether it be now or a place from our past, then you must respect the reader’s pre-existing understanding of the world. Readers will gladly accept a goblin-infested world of castles, but they’ll instantly dismiss a world identical to our own but with some minor changes for plot convenience.
Again the trick is to not include things based on convenience, and to not underestimate the understanding of your audience. Remember, however, that this type of realism is based on the reader’s perception of the world, or of a time period. You don’t have to nail the economy and speech patterns of the time, just avoid glaring anachronisms and situations the reader won’t believe could have happened.
The great thing about realism, whatever form it takes, is that writers almost always know what they have to do. What feels wrong to a reader feels wrong to the writer, so it’s usually a case of doing a respectable amount of research and being honest with yourself about what works within your story.
For more on getting readers to believe in your story, check out Are you in danger of losing your readers’ suspension of disbelief?, and Don’t let fake minor characters ruin your story.