This is a question which arose just the other day as I was writing a particularly intense scene in my latest book. There's one character who is this little ball of angry energy, and I needed her reaction to the situation to be authentic. I needed it to be believable, to fit her personality. And in expressing her emotional response verbally, she would not use a polite or a cutesy word; she would totally throw out the granddaddy of all curse words. So I, for the very first time in my writing, used the "f" word. I worried and I fretted. I wondered if it was too much of a break from my typical writing style. Would it pull the readers out of the narrative and make them focus on the word itself rather than the emotion it was meant to convey? In the end I concluded that, no, using that word would not come off as odd. What would be odd would be substituting something more polite. It would not be appropriate for that character and therefore would not be realistic.
A Common Question
If you are part of the indie community, you likely follow IABB Confessions on Facebook. The question of realism in fiction is one that pops up again and again, mainly from authors complaining that a reviewer has labeled their book "unrealistic". And the response is always the same: "It's fiction! It's not supposed to be real!" Well...of course we know it's not real. But it still has to be believable.
This issue confused the ever-loving mess out of me when I was in school. It was often a question that was asked in literature class. Sometimes it turned up on a test. Sometimes we were asked to comment on the issue in our book reports. But the question was always the same: "Is the story believable?" I was at a total loss. I read sci-fi. I read horror. I loved ghost stories and stories about aliens and travel to distant planets. Believable? Hell no! The books I liked most were pure fantasy. No realism whatsoever. Or so I thought at the time.
Are my own books realistic?
My most recent published novel, Primogénito: The Fuentes Legacy, has only gotten a few reviews so far, but general consensus seems to be that the book is very realistic. One reviewer wrote, "I definitely think the ending was well done, and realistic." And another said, "I did enjoy the ending, the realistic side of it and there is definitely quite a dark side to this story, especially when talking death and gore."
So...Primogénito is realistic. That's interesting, considering the events in the book could never happen in the real world. It is an urban fantasy about a family who has spent centuries studying alchemy and blood rituals in the pursuit of the secret to real magic. The ending, of course, is when the protagonists finally defeat the villains by stripping them of their supernatural powers. And, naturally, a certain amount of magic is required to undo all the other magic. And yet reviewers have called it realistic. Why?
While I was writing the book I vented my frustration with the particular challenges this story presented in a couple of blog posts, one dealing with the difficulties of writing fantasy, the other with the complexities of writing a decent backstory. Both blog posts deal with world-building. Since my book is an urban fantasy, meaning it takes place in this world, the actual world-building is minimal, but it is there nonetheless. I had to figure out how the magic works, how the family acquired it, and how it could be defeated. In creating all of that, I had to create a world which functioned according to certain rules. And since I was making up the rules as I went, I was in constant danger of breaking one without knowing it. When an author does that, it's called a plot hole. Those pesky story problems can arise in any book, but authors writing about magic or building an extensive backstory are, I think, in more danger of falling into them than authors writing other types of fiction. One cardinal rule is you can't just invent a new kind of magic when you need to rescue your characters from a tricky situation. They actually have to use their brains and find a way out which utilizes the rules already laid down. I suppose I did an okay job with that, because I've gotten two reviews so far which say my book is "realistic".
Have I written anything that's not realistic?
I got called out on this recently in a review for Amelia's Children. I knew it was coming eventually. I could see it even while I was still writing the book. The problem is the romance between Sarah and David. What I knew while I was writing it was that Sarah's infatuation with the mysterious stranger who walks into her life one hot summer night would be the thing that pulls her into the story and sets the ball rolling for her to solve the mystery. I wanted that in there because I wanted to audience to see David as this incredibly handsome, charming man, so I told the story from the point of view of a woman who falls madly in love with him.
Well, a few chapters in I completely shifted focus. The main mystery takes over and the love story takes a back seat. And it stays in the back seat for most of the book. Every now and then, while writing, I would remember, "Oh, yeah! David and Sarah are supposed to be falling in love." So I would throw in a kiss or an affectionate touch of hands or something like that. But then it would be over and they'd be back to investigating Amelia Davis's murder. And one reviewer, quite rightly, complained. I think she read my book expecting a paranormal romance. Yeah, it's kind of a romance, but it's primarily a murder mystery. Add to that the fact that I'd never written romance before and I barely read the genre and you've got a whole bunch of telling and very little showing in regard to Sarah and David's relationship.
That's not to say Amelia's Children sucks. People who have read it expecting a mystery have been quite pleased with it. But it's not a romance, no matter how hard it pretends to be, especially in the first five or so chapters. So that aspect of the book falls a little short of the realism which is vital to a good story.
What I've Learned
I've learned that, in building fictional relationships, you absolutely have to follow the "show, don't tell" rule. If it's a romance, you need hearts hammering in chests and hands which are strong, but gentle. You need kisses which send ripples of warmth through the character's body. You need deep conversations which show the audience that these two people understand each other on a level that goes far beyond mere friendship. I achieved this with Damian and Jenn in Primogénito, but not so much with Sarah and David in Amelia's Children.
You also have to listen to your characters. Just like the woman in my new book who would totally say the "f" word but would not be caught dead saying something more polite, you have to let your characters be who they want to be. Forcing them into some other mold will make your writing unrealistic.
And you have to follow the rules. Yeah, when you're the one doing the world-building you have some freedom to make the rules be whatever you want them to be. But once you know what they are, they can't be changed unless you want to go back and rewrite your entire book. You can't just pull a deus ex machina out of your hat without setting up some expectation earlier in the story that this is what will eventually happen to save the day.
So books can be fictional. They can be magical. They can be creepy and suspenseful. They can be over the top with the violence and the gore. But they have to be realistic.