By: Jilian Whitehead
How many times have you watched a movie, and there’s some big building or tree falling down toward the character, and you’re shouting, “Move!” in your head, but the character remains frozen? Or how about when you get exasperated when some girl can’t make up her mind between two guys?
It’s easy to criticize characters when we’re the observer and say, “Well, I wouldn’t do that,” but unfortunately, characters are more realistic than we think. I minored in psychology because I wanted to apply it to my writing. Here’s what I learned: You can never really understand people.
People are fickle. Unpredictable. And very, very faulty. But . . . here’s where fiction differs from reality. In fiction, most people don’t want to read about characters making stupid decisions. We don’t want them to be perfect, sure, but we also don’t want to be continually frustrated by their poor life choices. It may be different for different readers, but I’ve found that what most people want is not a realistic story, but a reflection of realism. We want things to look nicer and sound prettier (dialogue, for example, is so much more eloquent in stories), but we also want rules and logic similar to our own world and just enough character flaws that we can relate to.
Some writers will say, “It’s fiction. Why should it have to be realistic?” While it’s true that fiction doesn’t have to follow all the rules of the world we know—and it often doesn’t—just because it’s a story doesn’t mean that anything goes. If you stray too far from what we know, it’s going to take a lot of work for the reader to become invested in your story.
So how do you balance the line between fiction and reality? Well, there isn’t exactly a clear answer. Something that’s actually plausible (like your body being in shock from danger) may be scoffed at, while others have an extraordinary ability to just accept things at face value.
If you’re creating something unrealistic, some advice might be to ground it in something the reader can understand (for example, many fantasy settings resemble the medieval period). If your character is about to make a stupid choice, then give the reader a reason to understand why. More than anything, people like cause and effect. It’s in our nature to want an explanation for everything. So whether you’re writing high fantasy or contemporary or even poetry, think about the why behind your story . . . and just how far you can push against realism.