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How Much Realism Does Your Novel Really Need?

Ever had a critique partner or editor tell you, "This isn't realistic"? It's a valid
complaint. Novels are facsimiles of real life. They must mimic that life with
enough realism to allow readers to suspend their disbelief and invest
themselves in characters and plot scenarios that far exceed their own personal
experiences. In order to connect with readers, we strive to create those realistic
characters and settings. But here's a question every writer should be asking: Are
readers really as interested in realism as we think they are?
Or might they be more interested in verisimilitude?
Why You Should Be Striving for Realism in Your Story
We've all read stories in which the characters acted more like automatons or
hyper semi-neurotics than the sober, balanced, relatable people they were
supposed to be. We've all read stories in which the laws of physics were
randomly disregarded whenever it suited the author's fancy. I'll admit it: I've had
a few horrifically wounded characters who got up and probably performed beyond
the bounds of even a good shot of adrenalineand I've gotten slapped for it by
critique partners.
Readers like stories to make sense. Even when they're reading about jungle
expeditions, deep space crises, and murderous psychopathsthings with which
most of us have zero life experiencesthey like things to be as realistic as
This can present a bit of a conundrum for writers, since telling an engaging,
riproaring story is complicated enough without throwing in the constraints of
cold, hard facts. Sometimes the story just plain needs that horrifically wounded
hero to pick himself up, throw himself into that surge of adrenaline, and
unrealistically fight his way past his pain just long enough to stop the bad guy
and save the day. Sometimes, we don't know all the facts about jungle
expeditions. When even Wikipedia comes up dry, we sometimes have to fudge
the realism just a little bit.
But that doesn't mean we have an excuse to throw realism out the window.
Because if we do, readers are likely to throw our books right out after it.

Maintaining realism in a story is about two things:

1. Suspension of Disbelief
When the facts in our stories line up with the facts readers are used to seeing in
their own lives, it's that much easier for them to suspend their disbelief and
invest themselves in our characters, as if they were real people.
2. Relatability
Once suspension of disbelief has been accomplished, realism is what then
allows readers to relate to our characters and the scenarios in which they find
themselves. When the horrors of war ring truewhen a character reacts to
horrible loss or a magnificent victory in a familiar waywhen the setting is
presented so perfectly readers can practically smell the pine needles in your
forest scenethat's when your story leaps from a nice little tale to an
experience that will be just as vivid and memorable for readers as things they've
actually lived through themselves.
Why You Should Throw Realism Out the Window
So far, realism sounds pretty good, right? Sounds pretty important. So what's all
this about readers not caring about realism?
Have you looked at the bestseller lists lately? Been to the theater lately? Take a
look at Amazon's picks for best books of the month. Stephen King's writing
about Frankestein-like resurrections in Revival, Denis Johnson's got his
characters in The Laughing Monsters involved in an outrageous scheme to make
a uranium-fueled fortune, and in The Happiest People in the World Brock Clarke's
blithely mixing "small-town teachers, barkeeps, teenagers, and fry-cooks with
international spies, terrorists, and political refugees."
Please tell me what part of that sounds realistic.
My favorite book last year was the fantasy Black Prism. My favorite movie was
Pacific Rim. I'm still geeking out about the latest Marvel movie news of the
upcoming Civil War storyline in the next Captain America. At the moment, I'm
listening to the soundtrack from Star Trek: First Contact. And I'm in the throes
of writing about about your everyday, ordinary Regency-era English kid to
suddenly comes down with superpowers.
Who needs realism? Not me, baby.
We live in a world that is accepting more and more fantastical flights of fancy.
We don't blink an eye at aliens, sentient robots, dragons, and mild-mannered
scientists who turn into green rage monsters. More than that, we love these

things! Never mind that they're unrealistic to the degree of downright

impossibility. We still suspend our disbelief enough to care deeply about these
characters and their completely imaginary worlds.
In short, readers could care less about realism. What they care about is the
semblance of realism.
Realism vs. Verisimilitude
In Perfect Plot: Charting the Hero's Journey, William Bernhardt writes:
Is realism what people read novels for? No. A novel must have
verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality, within the context
of the world created by the book. But realism?
Take another look at all those unrealistic stories I mentioned in the previous
section. What do they all have in common other than their lack of realism?
The reason all these stories work despite their blatant flouting of science and
common sense is that they all maintain a strict sense of verisimilitude within
their story worlds. We believe in Middle Earth and Tatooine because they seem
just as real and nuanced as our own worlds. The authors created places
governed by physical rules that are just as strict as those of our own world.
Their characters, whatever their unrealistic anomalies, are fleshed-out, threedimensional humans who are still struggling with very relatable human
We suspend our disbelief about alien invasions because we trust the author to
construct a world in which alien invasions are plausible. Even more importantly,
we trust the author to maintain that plausibility and the rules of his story world
throughout the book.
This goes just as much for non-speculative fiction as it does for fantasy and scifi. The handsome duke sweeping the peasant girl off her feet isn't very realistic
when we come right down to it. The millionaire who decides to live like a hobo?
Also not too likely. But we still believe these stories because their authors have
created reasonable facsimiles of our own world. These worlds are just as
realistic, down to every little detail, in practically every other area of the story.
In short, they mimic reality enough for us to suspend our disbelief over the notso-realistic parts.
Stories are larger-than-life. And that's awesome. The next time you sit down to
write, make sure you're injecting that lifelike-ness into your tale. But don't be
afraid to also give readers the largeness they're craving and which they're more
than willing to acceptas long as you give them every reason to believe in it.

About the Author: K.M. Weiland is

the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

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