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Realism in Fiction: Making the False Believable

Updated: Jul 18

It doesn't matter if you're writing a complex fantasy novel with magic far beyond our reality, or a contemporary based on real-life settings and occurrences. Books either do or don't feel 'real' to readers based on the way you build and tell your story.


This week we're discussing how to add realism to your novel, to make readers believe even the most unbelievable fiction!



 

1. Thorough Worldbuilding

Whether your setting is a high-fantasy empire or a familiar town from real life, your story exists in a 'world'. Worldbuilding includes your setting both on a large and small scale, from the fictional world or real country your novel is set in, to the more personal places your characters find important (their home, workplace, favourite cafe). The stronger your worldbuilding is, the more the reader will be immersed in the story.


This doesn't just mean describing the way a place looks. You need to know its culture, history, terrain, layout, etc. (Check out my Worldbuilding Worksheet for much more!) For your story, this might mean establishing timelines for a monarchy, knowing the climate and culture of an area, or knowing the name and layout of your MC's favourite restaurant.


However, although you need to know these things, don't tell the reader all of it. They're not here for a history or geography lesson - they're here for story. So, tell us what's important. Consider this: instead of telling us the MC's room has four walls and a ceiling, tell us about what posters they like to put on the walls, how neatly they live, what colours they like, etc. These things are significantly more powerful than basic or obvious description.


When describing the world/setting, make sure to use all five senses. Don't just tell the reader how it looks - really show them how it feels to be there. Build a full picture and immerse them in the story! This is also a great way to weave setting and description into the story instead of 'info-dumping' it. Show your reader the story during the action.



2. Magic Systems with Limits

One of the most important parts of a magic (or technology) system is LIMITATION. It's easy to get caught up in creating amazing powers and abilities, but what happens when these abilities have endless strength?


An overpowered MC or villain is a boring one. Why? Because if they're unstoppable, how will your story have tension? Every character needs an Achilles' Heel; even Superman, one of fiction's most famous and powerful heroes, has kryptonite to weaken him.


Limitations help to boost your story's realism because rules make things clear to the reader. If your magic system can only be described as 'anything can happen!' or your technology has endless capabilities, the reader will be left confused, and also wondering what the point of the story is if everything can simply be fixed with technology/magic.


I find it helpful to create a document that covers exactly what my fictional magic/abilities/tech can and cannot do, how it's used, how powerful it can be, who has access to it, and the different skill levels.


We can also talk about limitations in terms of ethics, laws and rules. What is there to stop your MC from winning every battle and doing whatever they want? It could be that a law prohibits them from reaching their goal. Or maybe their limit is their own moral compass.



3. Characters with Depth

What makes a realistic character? Depth! Don't write one-dimensional characters.


Characters should have a range of positive and negative traits, unique to their distinct personality and past experiences. A hero shouldn't only have good qualities, and a villain shouldn't only have flaws - that would make for a pretty boring story! Give your protagonist flaws and difficulties to face, and have them respond to the events in the story appropriately.


The arc of a character is also very important. A stagnant character doesn't inspire readers. There's a reason people love redeemed villains - they're exciting, and easy to root for. You empathise with them because of how far they've come. On a smaller scale, how can your character grow throughout the story? What lesson can they learn?


This internal story is as important to readers as the external plot. Both should interact with and influence the other. You might start with a character who is shy and believes they can't express themselves authentically, but over the course of the plot, they learn they were wrong and become confident. Or, a character who is initially grumpy and unlikable, who learns through new relationships to be kinder.


As they change and develop, they become better equipped to deal with the main problem or villain in the story, and can eventually win!


(See my Character Development Worksheet for Fiction Writers for more!)



4. Realistic Timelines & Flow of Events

When do events happen in your novel, at what pace, and how do they impact the characters? Many writers throw lots of action or traumatic experiences at their characters to create drama, but fail to see these experiences through. Make sure each scene is purposeful to the plot, to the characters' development, and makes sense in the timeline.


Examples:

  • In action stories, when the many traumatic events aren't fleshed out enough, and the characters get over them too quickly (or heal from physical wounds too quickly).

  • In romance, when two strangers become inseparable and in love far faster than is realistic (known as 'insta-love').

  • In road-trip, adventure or travel stories, when characters move between locations unrealistically quickly (which can also be a worldbuilding problem!)


Carefully consider the pacing of your novel: when things happen, how long they happen for, and how much of the story (how many words) they take up. Which scenes do you want to deep-dive into and make longer, and what can be skipped over to get to more exciting or important plot?


Your character's arc (which we discussed in the last point) also needs to have a realistic flow. This means that while they change throughout the story, sometimes they go backwards in their growth and make mistakes. There should be a good balance of the character having agency and shaping their own story, and them being influenced by the plot points that happen to them.


If this is an aspect of your story you want to strengthen, you might want to try my Novel Outlining Worksheet for Fiction Writers.



5. Authentic Voice

Sometimes when you're writing, you're telling the story with yourself as the narrator. But most often in fiction, even in third person, you'll be writing from the point of view (POV) or perspective of a character. This means you're describing the story through their eyes, and with their thoughts/prejudices.


Consider how a child would describe something compared to how an elderly person would. Consider how someone poor might describe a scene compared to someone rich. Creating this authentic voice for your character means fully getting into their head. (Bonus tip: look into head-hopping as an example of something NOT to do!)


Dialects, accents and slang are also great for characterisation and placing a character/story in a specific setting. This might help to show the country and area you're in, but might also be part of worldbuilding in fantasy/sci-fi settings. Some authors create entire languages for their novels. If you're going to use slang or languages other than English, the trick is to make sure the reader can still understand what's going on and pick up on what things mean. If not, they'll be totally lost!


Another aspect of realism in writing is using the show-don't-tell rule. It's easier to plainly tell your readers that a character is, for example, angry. However, showing the reader the scene (the character's face going red, their hands balled into fists, heavy breathing and flared nostrils) paints a much clearer, stronger and more relatable picture. It also gives the reader proof of what's happening without it being explicitly told, which means they'll feel and see the scene, not just hear about it.


 

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