The Obsession with Making Writing Real

thoughts orangutan

One thing I have to make clear before I get started is that I’m not saying “realism sucks”. Every genre or style has its time and place. As much as I love fantasy, I’m open to all forms of the genre and I also adore classics/literary/contemporary fiction etc (not to mention the fact I like my historical fiction as realistic as possible). So, let’s just begin by saying yes, realism rocks just as hard as fantasy. Glad we could get that out of the way 😉

What I do mean, however, is that sometimes striving for realism takes over. While glaring errors can take you out of a story, sometimes criticism of contemporaries can get a little nitpicky (like, whether or not a particular school has a netball team or whatever). And I’ve written at length about why I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for fantasy. More recently, there’s even been a particular obsession with real experience. Which, you know, can be a problem since not every book is (or should be) an autobiography.

atticus finch quoteFor starters, writing is often about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s kind of impossible if you’re never allowed to think outside your own bubble. And while I’m not saying poach anything you like, or that everyone is capable of doing this, some people really are amazing at putting themselves in the mind’s eye of someone totally unlike them (one of the best examples being Rowling’s depiction of abuse, when, as far as I know, she hasn’t experienced this herself).

The other huge problem is how subjective this can be. While one reader might give you the go ahead, another might say you got it totally wrong. This can be even more troubling when you consider the fact that even if you have the same experience, it doesn’t mean you relate to it the same way. It’s frankly horrifying to see authors attacked for writing about their own experiences- which happened to Leigh Bardugo recently over Ninth House. I’m gonna be real: I lean heavily on my own experience in my writing, so it strikes a nerve to see people lashing out at writers over this.frieda-norris-quote-sisterhood I shouldn’t have to point this out, because it is fairly obvious, but here we go: you can’t make claims about someone’s experience without knowing the individual intimately (and even then, it’s pretty rude).  In fact, I’ve had people do the “ugh you don’t know about this, so shut up!” routine to me over things I *definitely* do know about (though, of course, they don’t know that). I’d say it’s safer not to assume you know a stranger’s life story, but that’s just me 😉

What’s more, even if I’ve been critical of a book for being unrelatable, I find it really helpful to hear why other people got something out of it. Not everything can be relatable for everybody– so it’s cool if you disagree with me on something. It gives me a chance to hear another perspective.

Plus, a huge amount of this simply comes down to personal taste. That’s what I tried to get across when I wrote the post “Don’t Write X”- it’s just not possible to appeal to everyone- and that’s okay! I can accept, for instance, that some readers are into fantasy for the world building and complex systems- ergo hyper-realism is important to them. Just because it isn’t the case for me, doesn’t mean I get to rain on their parade and decide all books should be super fantastical. There’s room for both hard and soft magic systems! Similarly, I’ve heard one writer say they find it pulls them out of a contemporary if the names don’t match up to modern trends… whereas I’m all for the quirky names! Barring huge illogical inconsistencies and glaring errors, these things will always be hit or miss. It’s about finding the right readers for a particular book.

For me, books aren’t all about how precise they are; they’re about the endless possibilities they contain. And so I’m not going to obsess over the realism (especially cos even complex magic systems basically come down to *because magic* anyway 😉).

because magic.gif

So, what do you think? Is realism the be-all and end-all for you? If not, where do you draw the line? Let me know in the comments!

61 thoughts on “The Obsession with Making Writing Real

  1. You make so many good points with this post. I hate when people say things like “that would never happen” and get out of the story. Anything can happen. End of story. A good story shouldn’t be nicked because something isn’t believable….what is that anyway?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes, absolutely agree with you! I think it’s okay to have an opinion on whether you think it can happen, how relatable it is to you, but I do think that comes with the obvious caveat that it doesn’t mean it won’t be relatable for other people!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Everyone is allowed their own interpretation, yet sometimes….one of my author friends was criticized that his gay characters weren’t realistic…and my friend is gay….so…yeah….

        Liked by 4 people

        1. Oh gosh, I see that *all the time*- it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to make this post- these things are subjective (and sometimes it just comes across as ridiculous to say “well I don’t feel that way, so it can’t ever feel like that!”/”I don’t act that way, ergo no one acts like that”)

          Liked by 2 people

  2. I think even fantasy writing can be ‘real/relatable’, in that the sense of realism all comes down to how well the characters are portrayed – how ‘realistic’ they are. I think more recent fantasy is better at it than earlier. Similarly, poorly drawn characters can render a ‘real-world’ setting quite unrealistic. I keep returning to ‘The Of Vinci Code’ (I know what I said) as an example. But as you say, it’s all down to personal taste.

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    1. Yeah I should’ve probably made it clear when talking about fantasy, I wasn’t talking about every element of the story, more about world building (and events/experiences in the plot), cos I’m definitely not voting for entirely unrealistic characters 😉 (though there is more room for that in fantasy, what with the abundance of magic). The Da Vinci Code is such a good example of that! (although that was good enough for a lot of people, so yeah, definitely comes down to taste there!)

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  3. For me, the amount of realism I expect varies quite a bit by genre. I expect far more from historical fiction or hard sci-fi than from fantasy or space opera. However, in any genre I really need internal consistency. I hate it when characters suddenly act inexplicably against their established character (or basic intelligence) for the sake of making the next thing in the story happen…ditto for magic/physics/technology/monsters/whatever suddenly and inexplicably behaving differently to accomodate a plot point or protect our protagonist.

    I definitely agree that the variety of human perception, experience, personalities, etc. invalidates much “you don’t understand…” or “that’s not what it feels like to…” criticism.

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    1. Yeah I very much agree with that (particularly with historical fiction, where I rarely enjoy when it strays from realism). I do agree with you on internal consistency and *definitely* agree on not making people do things for the sake of plot. I think characterisation has to remain believable, no matter how fantastical the story. And yeah, fantastical elements isn’t an excuse for a bad plot either!

      And yes- completely agree with you!

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  4. Joe Lendil got in in one: ” However, in any genre I really need internal consistency.” Someone’s reaction to a story – purely personal, a matter of taste. (We won’t address the issue of whether something is well written or not…)

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  5. Yes, there so many elements to “realism.” I think a lot of it comes down to whether the reader is enjoying – nay, loving – the book. If we love it, we will willingly suspend disbelief on any number of things. If we mistrust the book or author, we will be on the lookout for proof that the author doesn’t understand this or that, or is unaware, flippant, etc. Maybe that was behind the popularity of Da Vinci Code. People loved where he was going with it.

    Anyway, I need hardly say that we are now being encouraged to mistrust nearly all books and authors.

    I am with you …. can think of a number of times lately when people assumed I’d never encountered X or Y, but guess what … after 4 decades on this earth, I had.

    This hits close to home for me because the settings and people I like to write about are far from autobiographical. Lately I have been really concerned that my book will rejected out of hand as something I am not allowed to write, because not coming from direct personal experience.

    Thanks for this post.

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    1. I heard one writer phrase it as you only get one big “buy” with an audience, i.e., one time/story that the audience will allow something really outlandish. Most often that “buy” is basically the premise of the book. For example, that there’s a wizarding world in the Harry Potter universe. If you wanted to push that there are also aliens in that universe, you’d get some reader rebellion.

      I despise the notion that I am only supposed to write about things that I have experienced. I am trying to write fiction here, not an autobiography. Used to be that doing research for your writing was enough due diligence, but people seem quick to anger now. :/

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      1. That is such a great point!! Especially because it reminded me of a book that actually did have too many “buy ins” (great way to put it!) Funny you should use the aliens example, because I read a book that decided to start with clairvoyants, move onto vampires and then decided to end with them all being aliens- it was too much!

        YES! I completely agree with you!! Unfortunately, yes. Hopefully we’ll see people realising this is unsustainable and not a very good outlook eventually.

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    2. I think that is such a great point! If a book can get us on board, then all bets are off and we’ll buy into all/most of it. I get what you mean, cos I tend to be more nitpicky if a book hasn’t made me fall in love with it (I still to this day struggle to understand the success of the da vinci code 😉 )

      And yeah, unfortunately that is the case (and, generally speaking, we’re being asked to look for the worst intentions in any action anyone ever takes… which is not a very pleasant/positive/productive way of looking at the world).

      Yeah, this happens all the time. I think a lot of the time it’s just a desire to reach for the ad hominems rather than discuss the actual content/argument at hand.

      I get what you mean. I feel like this will hit close to home for all authors and writers- either because they use real experiences (and risk being told off for it- which, in my experience is a pretty hard thing to defend, especially if you don’t want to say “oh this happened to me though”) or equally important because it’s an exercise in empathy and exploring something that’s not our direct experience (which used to be what a lot of writing was all about!) I feel like there’s no way to win either way- because I see both positions being attacked in fiction. I just think something’s got to give or all we’ll be left with as “acceptable” writing will be autobiographies.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oddly enough, I have seen a few children’s books that are semi-autobiographical in nature write disclaimers to the effect of, “This book is based on my personal experience of X, but you may experience X differently!” It’s really weird, like they’re trying to protect themselves because it’s not even enough now that they’re writing autobiography. They have to remind people that their autobiography isn’t someone else’s life!

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        1. That’s bonkers- I’ve only ever seen the disclaimers where someone says “I haven’t experienced this” (once for brain damage, which I kind of figured they hadn’t experienced). It’s ridiculous that it’s gotten so extreme people don’t even feel safe to write about their own experiences (and yet I’ve seen plenty of people going for authors about their own experience anyway)

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      2. On my keyboard, a key is broken. Follows S in _he ABCs.

        Luckily I haven’_ encoun_ered a lo_of ad hominems in person. Usually i_’s jus_ a really nice, gen_le, unin_en_ionally pa_ronizing “Oh, you should go and learn more abou_ X.”

        “Some_hing has _o give.” I hope you are righ_. I_’s hard for me _o imagine how we’ll come back from _his, bu_ I hope we do. Maybe i_ will have some_hing _o do wi_h indie publishing and small fandoms.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. At this point I just have to laugh off the ad hominems 😉 Although I have had plenty of the patronising “you need to be educated on X”- which is code for “I don’t have a counter argument, but I know you’re wrong cos it conflicts with my ideology, so please check yourself into the nearest re-education camp” 😉 Both tactics are just designed to dismiss arguments without any critical thought.

          That’s a good point! I also think that at some point the publishing houses are going to realise that mobs on twitter don’t want to be appeased and that they are going to have to stop kowtowing to their demands… but that’s just me 😉

          (sorry about your keyboard!)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ha ha sorry about that keyboard thing! How annoying to read! I don’t know what I was thinking. I should have just gotten on my kid’s computer, like I am doing now … Once again I blame the lack of coffee.

            Laughing about the re-education camp! So true! Laughing until it comes to bite me, that is …

            Stand strong my friend.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fair, I’ve seen mostly positive reviews too, but since people were @ing the author on Twitter for her graphic portrayal of sexual assault (and the fact it wouldn’t be suitable for her ya audience, even though it was explicitly described as adult). It got pretty nasty to be honest. I felt really bad for the author, especially cos some people said she shouldn’t have written about the topic at all

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  6. I struggle with the idea that protagonists today all have to be “relatable.” Relatable to whom? I’ve definitely used the word myself in reviews to suggest protagonists who have emotions or situations that seem common or pertinent to a certain age group (like middle school crushes). But, everyone is different. We don’t know what everyone’s experience is or what readers will ultimately find relatable–or not. I know that I certainly didn’t relate to a good deal of literature growing up because I didn’t feel attracted to the “popular” crowd, I wasn’t “experimenting” or whatever teens are “supposed” to do, and so forth. Yet I see time and time again comments like, “If the teenagers aren’t having sex, it’s not relatable,” or, “If they don’t try smoking something, it’s just not realistic,” or, “She doesn’t sound like a teenager. She uses words that are too big.” But, there are teens who aren’t having (or aren’t interested in) sex, teens who aren’t using drugs, teens who are using big words. The pressure to be “realistic” often seems like it’s just the reviewer wanting their own life and experiences into a book, but part of the joy of reading is reading about people who aren’t exactly like you. The thing is, though, I think the reviewers often genuinely forget, in their desire to have everything “realistic,” that other people may have different realities.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is such an excellent point. I will say I am also guilty of using the term relatable. The problem for me is that when I use it I tend to mean “relatable to me”- so I’ve found more recently I have to try and put “to me” or “*I personally* found this relatable” in the sentence, not cos I’m being egotistical, but because I’m trying to point out this doesn’t mean everyone will- which shouldn’t be a surprise to people, but somehow is 😉 (I actually angst about this way too much, because I know there are people that get salty about seeing something described as “relatable” and then not finding it relatable for themselves- because it seems way too hard nowadays to understand that *every* individual has different experiences and different reaction to said experiences) So when I see someone saying they found something relatable, I instantly think they’re talking about themselves, and my only clue as to how relatable I’ll find it is how much in common I have with them. Likewise, if someone says they didn’t find it relatable, I know they’re also talking about their own experiences (and that can be fine too, unless they get angry about it… which can happen in a really extreme way- and that always shocks me).
      “The pressure to be “realistic” often seems like it’s just the reviewer wanting their own life and experiences into a book, but part of the joy of reading is reading about people who aren’t exactly like you. The thing is, though, I think the reviewers often genuinely forget, in their desire to have everything “realistic,” that other people may have different realities.”- I couldn’t agree with this more!! This is definitely why I wanted to write this post. I see this pressure everywhere and it’s just exhausting. It makes the job of being a writer impossible (because how does one write something that simultaneously reflects the lives of billions of people?!) and at the same time goes against the grain of why we read in the first place- we don’t read just to have our own stories reflected back at us- we read to understand humanity and the lives of others.

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  7. Me too don’t obsess over the realism. The story should be enjoyable or saying what author is trying to represent in it. In some books I want characters a little realistic but I don’t focus on small details like teenage should be doing this or that. For me, fiction or fantasy things should make sense.

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  8. If I were to read only books I could relate 100 % to that would make for a pretty boring reading. 😉 So fantasy it is most of the time for me. But even if not (which happens) I’m no censor running around and reading books with a red pencil (which would be difficult anyway 😉) – if I love the character/story I’m more likely to forgive breaks in realism as long as it’s well written. 😊

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  9. Realism doesn’t matter as much to me as “can the author make me believe this?” I can suspend a lot of disbelief if the author gives me reason to. It’s when I’m not given any explanation at all (not even “because magic”) that I have the most issues with a story. I read to escape, so I don’t expect photo-realistic fiction. I like fantasy. But I also like the author to do at least a little work to convince me that a situation could work.

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  10. wow, i feel this so much! especially with the outlandish level of identity policing currently going on in the YA community regarding diverse books and even #ownvoices books. i remember a few years back julie murphy was forced to out herself as bisexual after readers complained that her portrayal of a girl questioning her own sexuality in RAMONA BLUE was offensive and unrealistic and tried to have the book pulled from publication. it was a big deal because i believe murphy hadn’t wanted to out herself publicly because there were people in her personal life who didn’t know she was bisexual yet. and around the same time, veronica roth was forced to “out herself” as living with chronic pain (which had been a very personal, private matter for her) after readers complained that CARVE THE MARK had offensive chronic pain representation. it’s honestly such bs. as a marginalized reader, even i can see that you don’t have to be [x] identity to write about it well and respectfully. take for example, sa chakraborty’s DAEVABAD trilogy, which has been praised by many arab readers, myself included, for having absolutely outstanding representation of arab culture, despite the fact that chakraborty herself is actually white. or look at becky albertalli, whose books are highly praised by the lgbt+ community, despite albertalli being straight and cis. i think these show that it’s not identity that shapes our ability to write convincingly, but rather the care we put into opening our minds and expanding our perspectives. tbh, i think it’s equally as important to have non-marginalized writers write marginalized experiences, for a couple of reasons: 1) it allows them and readers like them to see that it is fully possible to expand your perspective and have empathy even for those unlike yourself and 2) it shows marginalized readers that there are people “on the other side” who are willing to grow, learn, and help. but i digress. i have so many thoughts on this topic i could go on forever lol! thanks for another great post that really got me thinking!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with everything you’ve said!! And as usual, Orangutan Librarian has hit the nail on the head (how do you write such brilliant articles on book community topics?? You’re on a ROLL). It’s like the book community is taking the advice “write what you know” TOO SERIOUSLY, which is ridiculous, because if you only wrote what you knew, then books would be boring! And one person can’t accurately represent an entire community either, so it’s unfair to act as if they’re the spokesperson. As a POC there are books out there that represent my specific culture and I still find them irksome and inaccurate, which is fine because obviously the author is not me, but what isn’t fine is everyone saying that they should be accurate for us all. The world is full of possibility and wonder–books should reflect that too! Multiple perspectives is what makes books interesting and worth reading

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      1. Thank you so much!! ❤ I really agree with you there!! Oh I totally get that- I've had that before too- I can get past it though, cos like you said, they're not me. And I couldn't agree more- because we're all individuals, so it's kinda impossible for books to reflect back our individuality all the time. Absolutely!! I know that one of the reasons I love reading is because I like exploring different perspectives and realities- not because I want to be stuck in my own head, in my own world etc.

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    2. Ahh I’m so glad you agree!! I see this as well all the time- and it’s just so terrible when authors are punished publicly for writing about their own experiences/forced to out themselves. And I couldn’t agree more that people don’t necessarily have to experience something to write about it well and respectfully- there are many writers who have done this in the past and I really like your Daevabad trilogy and Albertalli examples!! They are completely case and point! And yes, I definitely agree with that. There’s something very positive about writers who can write empathetically about other experiences. hehe yes, I completely get what you mean. Thank you so much for your incredible comment!!

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  11. There seems to be a growing sense of entitlement among the reading community in recent years in regards to representation. This isn’t exclusive to race or sexuality either, this extend to pretty much every subject imaginable. If a character’s experience doesn’t EXACTLY mirror the reader’s then it’s “harmful” or “exploitive.”

    Here’s a newsflash: Everyone internalizes things differently.

    Some people lose their religion after a traumatic event, others people find it. Some people sequester themselves, others become exhibitionists. There is more than one way to be and not everyone is going to feel/act the same way as you just because you went through similar experiences.

    This whole “you have to be part of Group-X in order to write about X-Subject” is absurd as well. I guess JK Rowling isn’t allowed to write about wizards since she isn’t one? That’s it for the murder-mystery genre too considering most authors of this genre have never been murdered, nor have they known anyone who has been killed. Oh, and historical fiction has to be done away with as well because nobody still living was alive prior to the early 1900s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah I really agree with you here!! I’ve seen it so many times as well- on pretty much every topic under the sun. It’s a bit funny for me personally, cos sometimes I’ve read books on topics close to home that missed the mark- but I actually don’t review those books, cos I know I don’t have it in me to be objective. Sorry for the tangent, it just seems strange to me that people can’t take a step back and give something the benefit of the doubt, and remember like you said *Everyone internalizes things differently*

      And yes, I definitely think it’s absurd to tell people they can’t write about things because they’re not in the group/not had that experience. Not only is this a way to reduce representation, but it also doesn’t make sense for most genres- eg fantasy, sci fi, thrillers, historical fic etc. Even non fic- because unless it’s an autobiography, the point isn’t to write about your feelings on a topic, but to inform the reader using research etc.

      So yeah, couldn’t agree more! Love your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. “While one reader might give you the go ahead, another might say you got it totally wrong. This can be even more troubling when you consider the fact that even if you have the same experience, it doesn’t mean you relate to it the same way.” Yasssss. Actually the other weekend when I was at my local book festival there was a panel on Disabilities in SFF and first off what an amazing panel and discussion, but secondly, the panelists brought up this exact thing! Victoria Lee was talking about lupus and saying how someone had said that they didn’t ‘get it right’ when it’s their own experience and not everyone experiences it in the same way. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh I’m so glad you agree!! And I’m really glad to hear that other people are talking about this as well- especially authors. I see a lot of authors saying things like that- especially backing down when the mob comes for them- which I think is really bad, particularly as so often they’re writing from their own experience and shouldn’t be shamed out of it! Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes exactly. I mean, I saw something recently and while the vitriol that was used by some folks regarding the orginal poster was unacceptable, the ideas expressed as a counter argument weren’t wrong and then everyone backed off because things got out of hand and some of their followers went overboard….the internet is a mess lol

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  13. Realism is great in stories meant for it. It just has to make sense within the logic set by the author in his world. I definitely hate people who think they know something more than others about a subject. As long as an author does their research and convey what they know and feel about something, then the end result will probably speak for itself. Great post! Definitely agree with you, as always hahah

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