First off, a very obvious statement: By definition, fiction is not real. OK, everyone knows that. But just because the story isn’t real, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be “realistic.”
What I call realism is made up of those small details which let the reader feel that the world of the story is a real world, with real people who think, feel and act the way real people are expected to. It could be a world that is imagined entirely by the author, or it could be based on something the author has lived or experienced. But the reader will have a richer and more enjoyable reading experience if the characters, and the world they live in, feel like they could exist just outside his door.
Once upon a time the greatest authors did not hesitate to write pages and pages of description in order to “create” a realistic setting for their stories. But all styles, including literary, evolve over time. In today’s hectic, faster-paced world readers for the most part don’t have the patience to read all that description. Nevertheless, even if they might not consciously express it, they still need enough details to let them feel that the author knows the world he is talking about, and that he is bringing them along with him into that seemingly real world.
Take, for example, my novel, The Guilty, which is a courtroom drama. This is a genre that most people have either read, or seen in a movie or on TV. Trials are also something that we can watch live on cable news, which is the most compelling kind of reality television. So a reader who picks up such a book will want the fictional story he is reading to be grounded in what he has become familiar with; but he will also be aware if the writer is merely parroting what is shown on TV without providing any added depth or detail, that which makes the particular story “real.” This is when he feels the story is clichéd, or stale, and the enjoyment of reading it is lost.
In The Guilty I try to describe a world I lived and worked in for the better part of a quarter century. That fact is not important to the reader. It could be something I read about on the internet for all the reader cares. What is important is that I let him or her see, hear, feel and maybe even smell that world, so the the world of the book is as real as what he sees on the news. As my characters walk down the courthouse halls I have to make sure the reader is beside them, seeing the faces of the courthouse “regulars,” feeling the hard plastic of the chairs that line the halls, hearing the non-stop chatter and gossip around the information desk.
Often a reader won’t even pick up on the importance of these details; he’ll just move along with the story, feeling that he’s in the middle of the swirl of events without realizing what it is that put him “into” the story. In the best of cases the details are minimal and just enough to let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks, so he feels that he’s seen and heard more than is actually on the written page. That is a level of excellence that a struggling writer dreams about, and can only hope to attain once in a while, if he works hard and is lucky.
But, however we as authors do it, we have to remember that the most imaginative stories still need to feel real.
About the Author:
Gabriel Boutros is married and has two sons. He has lived most of his life in Montreal, the city where he found the two great loves of his life: his wife, Rose, and a little hockey team called the Montreal Canadiens. He says he needs both of them to get through the long, cold Canadian winters. He worked as a criminal lawyer for 24 years and, based on many of the things he has seen and experienced in his career, both good and bad, he wrote his novel, The Guilty.
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