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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why Realistic Fiction is Important

At the risk of sounding oxymoronic, or just moronic, I maintain the notion that fiction is real.

To explain how it's possible for something defined as fictitious to be real, we need only make a simple distinction- the difference between fact and real.

You see, the word "real" means so many different things to different people, that like creativity and what defines something as Art™, it can be considered quite subjective; but I will boldly insist on a different angle to the word altogether.

To the most secular among us, something is merely real if it has matter, or was an event that occurred. This means that rocks are real, and historically-accurate stories like Killing Lincoln are quote-on-quote "real" stories, because they actually took place.

This means that things like, say, Harry Potter aren't real.

Of course, if you want to be a snarky smart-ass, you could always pick up a hard copy of a Harry Potter book, knock your knuckles against it and say, "See, it is real. Touch it if you don't believe me."

No, it's not whether the book physically exists that their contention lies, rather these people would insist that the story isn't real. But of course the story is real- I'm reading it right now. How could I read the story if it didn't exist?

I know I'm being facetious, but my point still stands. Whether or not something is real isn't denoted purely by whether or not it was an event in history.

No, there was never an orphan wizard named Harry, or a bastard child named Jon Snow or a hobbit named Frodo.

But that has hardly any bearing on whether the stories are real or not, dear reader.

The only requirement for a story to be bona fide real is for it to be realistic.

Despite the naysayers, the barrier for this requirement is not nearly as high as most people think.
A story about dragons can be real in that it draws all its characters and plot events from the real world; I can think of no better example of this than the 2002 film Reign of Fire. Reign of Fire is a movie that takes a look at what the real world would like if dragons did exist. It applies real-world logic to a hypothetical situation, and the results are a real answer to what such implications would be.

It's by no means a perfect film, and has a few major flaws with the way the story is told, but the approach is still brilliant.

Hypothetically, if dragons existed, what would happen? How would the governments respond? That's what the movie goes into (and also, tanks vs dragons is an awesome thing to watch).

For more on why fiction is real, I'd encourage you to click here, as Ariell Harris did a much better job explaining it than I could ever hope to achieve (also Chris Brecheen is like an older, liberal version of me, so I always appreciate his refreshing point of view on things. Especially since we're so different fundamentally yet come to the exact same consensus on writing).

So this leads us to the question: why does it matter?

If someone wants to write about dragons and fairies and dicking around, why should we care?

To that, I say we shouldn't. I believe that writing is freedom, and anyone who writes should be able to write whatever the hell they want without being told they aren't a real writer. To put it simply, it's not my job to gatekeep the writing community. If you write regularly, then you're a writer. If all they write about is fantasy nonsense with no realism whatsoever, it's none of my business to pass judgement on them.

I don't think we should care if someone else wants to neglect realism, but I'd encourage you to implement healthy realism into your own story- at least, if you want it to be real. It's a sense of bearing on reality that keeps fantasy grounded in the real world.

Stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are real because they take the machinations of the real world into account. They don't throw logic or reason out the window- rather they apply logic and reason to non-existent secnarios.

By far the most real fiction book I've ever read is Lord of the Flies.

For those who haven't read it, Lord of the Flies is a short novel published in 1954 about a group of adolescent boys who become stranded on an island without any adult supervision. They act and behave exactly the way you'd expect pre-teen English boys to behave, with the fat kid becoming the butt of every joke and social hierarchy developing early on.

It doesn't take long for the group to devolve into a tribal mob, becoming irritable and radically provocative as resources dwindle and they don't know how to handle their circumstances. Their frustrations and inane behavior are the inevitable byproduct of their circumstances.

But of course, this isn't a "And they all lived happily ever after" story where the adults show up right away and rescue them.

By the end of the book, they'd already become murderous psychopaths, killing each other over trivial things like whether to stay on the beach or the inland, or whether one kid is the leader or the other, or whether it's ok to bully Piggy, the overweight kid that becomes the scapegoat for all their problems. They go as far as to create an imaginary "beast" to project their fears on when something doesn't go as planned, and all it takes to kill a child is to point at him and yell "It's the beast!"

While the story isn't factual and never happened, almost identical events have, such as the Russian Nazino Affair in 1933 when 6,000 soviets were dropped off on an island in the middle of nowhere and devolved into tribes of cannibal thugs. It was Lord of the Flies on a much bigger scale- but instead of a couple dozen boys, it was a few thousand adults- and they acted almost exactly the same.

For this reason, Lord of the Flies is often praised by critics for being so realistic. It perfectly captures the darkest side of human nature and the kind of cruelties humans are capable of, without adding or subtracting anything.

Likewise, this can be applied to any story. Regardless of whether your story is set in the fantasy world of Alistataire or the year 2,000,000 on some planet 60-light-years away in the Gorilium system, realism the ability to apply real-world logic to fantastical situations. In fact, the best stories are the ones that can suspend your disbelief with their authenticity. For the sake of immersion, your reader should feel like they're really there, experiencing the fantastical and wondrous world themselves, taking in everything your grand stage has to offer. But if your world and characters are phony, inauthentic, and feel two-dimensional, then your story is undermined at every front except maybe the writing itself (but odds are if the writer doesn't care enough to write good characters or a good world, they probably don't care enough to write good prose either).

Looking at you Cassandra Clare.

If your readers see strings of dialogue that no real person would ever say in their situation, then it needs to be rewritten. Likewise, if your characters behave like real, flesh-and-blood people (or aliens or supernatural creatures or whatever you're working with), and the world itself feels like a real place, then you've done good and succeeded in making the story compelling and interesting.

I'll be the first to admit that this is the thing I struggle the most with in my writing.

I have some pretty good plot ideas (tooting my own horn here, toot toot!) but I struggle with making the characters and dialogue convincing. I'm gripped with the fear that anyone who reads my book will think the characters are phony and two-dimensional, and honestly, there is no easy way to remedy this.

It's hard. Creating real people in your head is infinitely more challenging than I would have ever expected, and anyone who tells you it's easy is selling something.

I'm not going to fill your head with empty promises and bullshit remedies. There is no easy way to make characters real.

However there are a few good places to start- creating a character sheet for each character is an excellent way to establish character qualities that will make them feel more real.

Even if a character only appears in the book for one scene in the book, create an entire backstory for them. Determine what their childhood was like, who their parents were, how they were educated, and anything else that would affect them as a person. Even if it seems pointless to create an entire backstory for a character who only appears once, you can write their scene knowing exactly what that person would say or do in that scenario.

Jenna Moreci posed this solution with a simple exercise:

Think of someone you know really well in real life. Now ask yourself what they would say or do in that situation.

Odds are an answer immediately popped into your head. If you know someone well enough, you can often venture a guess as to how they'd react to a certain situation.

Likewise, if you take the time to really get to know your characters, you'll always have an idea as to what they'd do in any given situation. And as a practice-building exercise, try thinking of random situations and imagining what they'd do in them.

Even if none of these scenarios occur in your book, just taking a few minutes to consider how your characters behave in various circumstances will really enhance your understanding of them.

Your character is so much more than just a protagonist, or just a comedic relief, or just a villain. They're flesh and blood in your world- your world exists however you want it to, so do a good job making it as authentic as possible.

And while the process of crafting real people can be daunting and difficult, often when you start to succeed, they'll be out of your hands. They'll have their own personality and quirks that exist independently of what you need from them as a character.

If you created them as the protagonist, or the sidekick, or the villain, it doesn't matter- they're going to do their own thing, saying and doing whatever they want to.

So after you're done rocking in the fetal position and get back to work, creating living worlds and realistic characters, just be sure not to let them get too out of hand. You gotta keep a leash on those suckers or they'll get away from you.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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