How Much Realism Does Your Novel Really Need

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 adrenaline–and 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 psychopaths–things with which most of us have zero life experiences–they like things to be as realistic as possible.

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.

I'm glad I can talk to you about fiction characters as if they were real and have still think I'm sane

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 true–when a character reacts to horrible loss or a magnificent victory in a familiar way–when the setting is presented so perfectly readers can practically smell the pine needles in your forest scene–that’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:

Amazon Best Books of November Stephen King Revival The Laughing Monsters Denis Johnson The Happiest People in the World Brock Clarke

King‘s writing about Frankestein-like resurrections, Johnson‘s got his characters involved in an outrageous scheme to make a uranium-fueled fortune, and 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 ContactAnd I’m in the throes of writing about your everyday, ordinary Regency-era English kid to suddenly comes down with superpowers.

Black Prism Brent Weeks Pacific Rim Guillermo del Toro Captain American Civil War Star Trek First Contact

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 enoughto 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

Perfect Plot Charting the Hero's Journey William BernhardtIn 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, three-dimensional humans who are still struggling with very relatable human problems.

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 sci-fi. 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 not-so-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 accept–as long as you give them every reason to believe in it.

Tell me your opinion: What about your story qualifies for realism? What about it is unrealistic?

How Much Realism Does Your Novel Really Need?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great post. Good things to keep in mind.

  2. Sheryl Dunn says

    I suppose it’s unrealistic that three “ordinary and middle-class” women would get together and plan to kill pedophiles because most people don’t kill…even the adult survivors of childhood abuse rarely kill.

    And yet you see events in the news (via Google Alerts for vigilantes and vigilantism) where people take the law into their own hands.

    Frankly, I think vigilantism is on the rise. Twenty years ago, did you hear the cops warn people not to take the law into their own hands? Yet now we do…often.

    I think the verisimilitude in stories where the premise is a bit far-fetched, but not in a different world as in fantasy and SF, comes from the characters and their relationships. Make those real, and readers will accept almost anything, provided you don’t goof about some facts.

    I was watching Criminal Minds, and they goofed with two important facts (important to writers; probably not to others): the number of books published yearly (they were way off), and that there was no way to find out how many had been published. The latter isn’t exactly correct either. I stopped watching because of those errors. Yet, I love SUITS (on Netflix)…so many things in that program would not happen in real life, but I love it anyway because of the characters and their relationships.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We want authors to be at least as smart as we are, and we want them to *recognize* that we’re that smart. The moment an author disregards either of those desires, he’s in trouble.

      • I have never heard is express better 🙂

      • Well said. The whole “I know that you know that I know” thing is one of the most effective tools in nailing the reader to the chair. But you have to know and understand your core audience a bit more than completely to hit the bull’s eye. Moreover, it creates a relationship between the author and reader.
        Would be great if you created a post, revealing your opinion on relationships that are emerging while reading books: between reader and author, reader and story, reader and characters and most important reader to herself.
        Thanks.

      • robert easterbrook says

        You see, K.M., this is where you need to edumacate me because I think I know what this means but then I think I don’t. I mean, who is ‘we’ in ‘We want authors to be at least as smart as we are.’ Are you talking about the reader? Or are you talking authors being as smart you, or ‘us’, meaning the collective responding to your post? And which two ‘desires’ do you refer to? Perhaps I’m not one of those ‘smart’ authors you’re talking about.

        And Frank, I think this is an interesting idea:
        “Would be great if you [K.M.?] created a post, revealing your opinion on relationships that are emerging while reading books: between reader and author, reader and story, reader and characters and most important reader to herself.”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          “We” being us as readers and the two desires being for the author to be intelligent and for him to recognize his readers’ equal intelligence.

  3. Wow, this post makes a great point. I’d never thought of it that way. I’ve disliked books because of what I thought as lack of realism and monitor it in my own writing, but you’re right. It was verisimilitude that those books were lacking. Like you said, “we trust the author to maintain that plausibility and the rules of his story world throughout the book.” It’s not the realism of the story that I look for, it’s the consistency of the rules within the story’s made-up world.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think we’ve all come to a moment in reading a book when we find ourselves thinking, The character would *never* have acted that way! We know this not because we know the character better than the author, but because we know the “rules” the author has presented as being accurate for this character. And when the author breaks those rules, we will always hold him accountable for that.

  4. Great post! Definitely something to keep in mind.

    Many people dislike Pacific Rim for its lack of realism. But I couldn’t care less! I was not rolling my eyes because Jaegers are (perhaps) not the most realistic way to dispatch Kaiju, or because an inter-dimensional portal is illogical.

    A good story does not have to be 100% realistic, but it should carry a sense of believability for the context it is set in.

  5. thomas h cullen says

    People respect “work”. Whatever it is that’s constituted work, people will accept.

    As terrible as the content of the show ‘Lost’ became, it maintained still onto its audience because of its episode-by-episode work. ‘Childhood’s End’, Clarke’s finest perhaps, a sci-fi story pushing perilously close into just space fantasy territory – astounding work, hence an astounding standing, etc etc.

    Disney and Pixar films – no reality, but again highest levels of standing, because of highest levels of work.

    (The Representative: not in possession of a standing, yet, but in possession of the very highest of all levels of imaginative work.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you mean the effort put into creating worlds readers can invest in and believe, then, yes, I totally agree with you.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Indeed, that’s what I mean. To again refer to The Representative – even in its own case, with its own story points, without the work the final product could’ve still been an utter mess.

        Mentioning something, or establishing something at only a certain point; having the patience to mention or establish something; establishing a throughline, by remembering to recall something from earlier on; investing into the piece so much sincerity, you realise to never use a certain kind of language here, or a certain kind there, etc:

        Work. (Which The Representative’s informed by the largest amount of.)

  6. Great article and thought about the concept of “verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality, within the context of the world created by the book.” I have wrestled in my WIP mystery where one of the protagonist is sitting in prison for embezzlement based upon circumstantial evidence and letter of the law application by this small town’s mayor’s insistence. Would a highly respected athletic coach accused of embezzling (stealing school funds) $5000 earn him up to seven years in Georgia? Yes, by the full letter of the law it is possible, is it likely? Not unless a corrupt or vindictive political agenda has influence on the court system. My character has a hidden secret he protects for the sake of one his former student’s who confessed to him before the charged came. In the story he chooses not to defend himself in court for fear of having to divulge this secret, and has his lawyer work out a plea agreement for five to seven years. The story line is built around most of the folks in the town’s insistence of his innocence but they remain shocked because he accepted the guilt for a plea bargain deal in stead of clearing his name. My story picks up three years later when they are left unsettled and a retired journalist moves into this small southern Georgia town… Without verisimilitude at play I believe the story is not as attractive and luring as the mystery unfolds.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you can create solid and believable character motivations, you’ll be able to convince readers to suspend disbelief on just about any action, no matter how seemingly unrealistic.

  7. Very entertaining post, I have never thought about it with my writing so it’s something to bear in mind in the future. Saying that, in my first book, I was so obsessed with historical accuracy that some of the story suffered.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The balance between the story’s needs and the research’s needs is always a tricky one. Err too far on either side and you’re sure to lose readers.

      • You’re totally right on this. My problem came from being an American now living in Great Britain. Many British people denounce Hollywood film for ignoring historical accuracy. In fact, out of respect to my British friends, I will never watch the movie U571. That’s why it was such an obsession with me when I wrote my first book.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’m watching Braveheart right now. The historical inaccuracies are so glaring it’s hard for me to get past them. Every reader’s trigger points will be different, but erring on the side of accuracy will rarely if ever get you in trouble.

  8. What’s realistic? Well, I deal quite realistically with trauma, emotions and mental illnesses, as well as relationships. The people are very, very real.

    However, I also write magic and myths into it. The latest scenes all deal with a woman lost in Yggdrasil becoming a Seer to get back to any other realm.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great example. You’re striving to achieve total verisimilitude via the accuracy of your real-world facts, which then allows you the leeway with readers to weave in highly unrealistic plot elements.

  9. I totally agree! One of the things I hate most are stories wherein characters and events happen because the authors force them into happening, not because it’s in the character’s nature to act that way. It throws me off, especially in TV shows and movies that tend to keep their characters static. But then something happens that should bring about some form of character change, but still the characters end up making the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but there should at least be some form of hesitation if the characters know that making the same mistake means throwing themselves into the fire.

    In fact, it’s one of the reasons a lot of horror films seem ridiculous to me. Who, in the world, really walks into the basement right after they thought they saw something creepy or strange crawl into it? Wouldn’t most people turn and flee?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! That’s something that tends to irritate me about the television format. I’ve ended up disliking more than one character who was forced into doing illogical things just to keep the show running as long as possible.

  10. robert easterbrook says

    Nope. I hated Pacific Rim. Can’t stand stories that use suspension of disbelief in every sentence in every paragraph making you work too hard from the start to get into the story; doesn’t work for me.

    In my present story, I guess the not-so-realistic parts are the spaceships and their capabilities. Even though it is sci-fi, I feel I need to work harder at making their existence plausible, in the context of the story.

    The battle scenes are the hardest to get ‘right’, for me. I have read battle scenes that just made me close the book and never open it again. So, for me, the realism aspect has to work in the battle scenes.

    The rest of the story is pure realism. Imperfect people with quirky personalities and some seemingly insurmountable problems and relationships that are sometimes dysfunctional and need work, and they got to work it out, somehow. This is better for me, and seems to make the characters realer. I don’t like flawless characters.

    From what you said in the post, I got the distinct feeling that novels become novelettes; the writing is reduced. No one has to write lengthy novels. Perhaps making the writing more slight, trivial and sentimental. I mean, hardly anyone seems to write like authors of the past. What I mean is, there seems to be this reducing everything to the slight and the trivia, just so readers aren’t reading something like Hemingway. I got excited by the movie Interstellar, making me feel good about writing sci-fi, because it was lengthy, deep and profoundly moving.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No, definitely not advocating “lessening” novels. Every story has to be the length and heft it has to be.

  11. Thanks for sharing another excellent article on an important topic. You’ve made compelling arguments I agree with. I enjoy good fantasy and just about all fantasy I’ve read ensconces readers in enjoyable, imaginative worlds created by the author. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are among my favorites.

    I’m put off by the worn out computer animations that sacrifice outlandish scenes over the demand for good acting and directing, great storylines should be a given.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I love it when filmmakers focus on real-life sets. Even subconsciously, they help ground the believability of the world.

  12. Alberto Leal says

    “Cape Breton Island, N.S. in Canada. The land where many years ago, the Elves of Aisling’Nar have decided to call home. Lost in the midst of fishermen and tourists, none have had the chance to meet an actual Elf, except for William O’Hara himself. Famed author and protector of their legends”

    Realism vs. Verisimilitude. Oh yeah, I agree the latter makes things a lot more interesting. Great article, I loved it. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As I read this, it made me think about how much “un-reality” we tolerate even in real life. Humans love myths and legends. Loch Ness, King Arthur, fairies–we all *almost* believe that stuff, starting from our childhoods.

      • Alberto Leal says

        Good point. I believe it is that ability to believe in myths and legends that shape us as people sometimes. I believe it is a healthy thing when a culture has a rich mythical tradition. It tells me of its ability to pass on everlasting lessons to the new generations.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          There’s also something to be said for the fact that so many common elements surface in the myths of almost every culture.

  13. Leaving aside works of fantasy for a moment – where realism clearly needs to be checked in at the door – I think it’s also interesting to consider how much improbability we can handle in stories which are based firmly in “real” settings.

    It’s tempting to say that outrageous coincidences have no place in fiction, but of course that’s wrong. If we stick only to what is “likely” to happen then we’ll just get a tale of everyday life, which readers can experience all on their own!

    FWIW, I subscribe to the view that an outrageously unlikely event is perfect for the inciting incident, the thing that kicks the whole story off. A plane crash, a lottery win, two long lost twins meeting on a train.

    What I really don’t like is the outrageously unlikely event being used to bring the story to an end (e.g., detective gets a silly stroke of luck to get the key to the puzzle). That’s cheating, IMHO.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a fabulous point. Outrageous is great at the beginning, not just because it sets the tone, but because it sets up an interesting story. If a story *doesn’t* start with something comparatively outrageous, then we have to wonder why it’s worth telling in the first place.

      • robert easterbrook says

        Why does every story need to begin outrageously? I don’t get it. I think a story starts where it must, and goes on until the end. You would probably think my first novel’s story wasn’t worth telling because it doesn’t start outrageously. I start with the main character, putting her in her place, in context, before the turmoil strikes. She’s oblivious to the drama unfolding around her in the background, until she unwittingly becomes part of it. Would you say I started in the wrong place?

        • I don’t think anyone is saying that a story needs to begin outrageously. What I said was that if you’re going to have an outrageous coincidence, then early on is the place to put it.

          Om a completely separate question, if you spend too long setting your main character in context before anything interesting happens then there is a very good chance that a reader won’t stick around long enough to get to the good bits.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Ditto what Alex said. It isn’t about being “outrageous” so much as piquing the readers’ curiosity and giving them a reason to read on.

  14. This is one of my favorite subjects. What I think it comes down to is the two sets of rules that govern anyone’s story: the common sense provided by readers and the basic context provided by the author. Common sense covers the rules of the real world (such as, falling off a cliff will probably kill you), and basic context covers the rules of the world of the novel (cliffs hold little danger in a world of immortals).

    Verisimilitude comes in being consistent with all this context established (shown, ideally, versus told) in the early pages of the manuscript. But if the rules are changing constantly, and literally anything can happen, then you lose conflict and tension, narrative authority, and, most likely, readers. You don’t have to be true to reality, but you do need to be true to *your* reality.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great summation. If we establish right off that our characters can fly off cliffs, readers will swallow it without question. It’s only when we have them jumping off cliffs as a deus ex machina trick that the whole thing falls apart.

  15. This was a great post! I’m really happy to have learned verisimilitude and its importance- it’s something I have certainly thought about but not a lot! A lot of the stories I read/movies I watch are unrealistic- just my genre. But then there are those moments in movies where you’re like- what are the odds that that event would occur at that exact moment- and know it was because of convenience (the moments people predict because they’re all over the place). We need a balance between them- thanks for the advice!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Coincidences are perhaps one of the biggest dangers to suspension of disbelief. Even more so than blatantly unrealistic story elements, coincidences will almost always give readers pause.

  16. Well the topic can be viewed from 2 different angles. From one angle one can argue that people read fiction in order to escape the reality, right? Yes, but… on the other hand, if you are writing something that can theoretically happen in real life, then that particular scene should be well written – i.e. be believable.

  17. Oh yes, I know Braveheart very well. There is not one shred of evidence to suggest William Wallace and Princess Isabella ever met. Thank you

  18. Another way of looking at a story is that it should raise some story questions pretty damned quickly.

    If you start with backstory, as many newbies do, you’re answering everything, usually in narrative, and usually with a lot of telling.

    Now, if you’re E. Annie Proulx (as in THE SHIPPING NEWS), you can get away with it because the writing is so beautiful and the character is so quirky and unusual, but most of us aren’t Proulx.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is the *best* way to look at backstory: it’s the answer (hopefully an intoxicatingly juicy one) to the question that should be framing your entire story, one way or another.

  19. Great article. But I’m wondering, what of realism as it relates to the technical aspects of a novel? My second WIP plot line has been adjusted so that a technical aspect relating to law (a crime has been committed) is more attuned to reality. An attorney would not disclose their client’s case details to her friends. I’d prefer the attorney to damn the torpedoes for his client’s best interest and break the attorney client privilege. But would the reader find this objectionable in its implausibility? The adjustment works, but I believe the desperation and the urgency of my character’s friends to save her from her own poor judgement, makes for better storytelling. So when does realism stop, and just good story-telling begin? Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It all comes down to character motivation. People do all kinds of things. If you’re presenting a believable and compelling motive for *why* he’s doing it, readers will believe in its realism all the way.

  20. My story is totally realistic. There’s nothing more believable than elves with telepathic and empathic abilities, dragons with sentient intelligence, portals connecting Earth and a fantasy world…

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