top of page
  • Writer's pictureTeresa Widdowson

Fictional Realism

Updated: Mar 9

Artwork by thommas68 in Pixabay, Fantasy book with waterfall in clouds

When I’m writing a fiction book, one of my many goals is to make the readers feel like they are there, inside the story with my characters. I want them to feel as immersed in this make-believe world as possible. I want them to feel like they are standing beside them or in the same room with them as they journey through the chapters. But how do I do that? As a writer, how can I make my fictional world as believable as possible?

I try to create what I call, Fictional Realism.

If you’ve heard this term before, there is another type of fictional realism. It was coined by philosopher Alexius Meinong, and is a theory of objects, or Gegenstandstheorie, which in the very simplest explanation argues that fictional characters exist within the fabric of reality. You can read more about it in this paper on "Fictional Entities".

However, I’m not using the phrase philosophically. In my writing, fictional realism refers to the idea of making their fictional world feel as real as possible. And to do that, I need to appeal to all five of my readers’ senses. If I’m writing a scene at a beach, for instance, I want them to feel the cool breeze of the nearby ocean hitting their face, smell the sharp salt in the air, sense the strong sun in the sky as it warms their bare shoulders and hear the waves as they pound against the shore. If I can activate all their senses, I have the best opportunity to truly put them in the world with my characters.

Here’s a quick example. Which of the following makes you feel more like you are in Janice’s world with her?

The piercing cries of the seagulls sliced through the soft, low swoosh of the encroaching waves as the early morning sun peeked over the edge of the ocean. The warm rays gently penetrated the cool, light breeze and heated a spot on Janice’s cheek, pulling her from her sleep. She pushed away the long dark curls of her bangs, gently rubbed the crusty sleep from her eyes, and sat up. Her lips formed into a smile as she stretched her long arms, looked out over the ocean, and watched the hazy yellow globe paint pastels of pinks and yellows against the bellies of a line of low spotty clouds. Sand released into the breeze when she stood and shook out her patch-work blanket. Her bare heels sank and the coarse grains of sand, still chilled from the long dark night, crept up slowly, scratching and tickling the sensitive skin between her toes. She took a deep breath and the thick, salty air hit her nostrils. Licking her dry, cracked lips, she tasted only salt and the musty staleness of morning breath and realized she was starving.

Now, compare it to this one:

Janice woke up on the beach and stretched. She shook the sand out of her blanket, looked out at the early morning sun over the ocean, and realized she was hungry.

It makes the same main points. The reader knows the character’s name is Janice and that she’s probably tall with dark curly hair and bangs. We also know that she just woke up, slept on an ocean beach, it’s morning, and she’s hungry. But what a difference! The first paragraph touches on all five of the senses and hopefully, puts you there—in the moment. It makes it seem like you’re there with Janice, feeling and seeing everything she does. It feels more real. The second example simply provides a description.

So what’s the big deal, you’re probably asking? Don’t you just imagine a sene and then write a description using the five senses? That’s the gist of it. But to do it well, it helps to have a good sense of the place and characters you’re writing about first. For me, my beginning step is to think about a place I’ve already visited in my life, or a person I’ve met before. I may be creating a location where a murder occurred, a house that one of my characters lives in, a face that fits their personality, or perhaps a painting in someone’s office. I am a very visual person, and using images helps me describe settings and characters in more detail.

Search engines like Google or Bing are often my starting points. I may even look through photographs I’ve taken. Other great places to find good ideas are Pinterest and copyright-free image sites like Pixabay and Unsplash. For characters, finding a face that works is great. But people aren’t just about their faces. Their personalities also show in how they fix (or don’t) their hair, the type of clothes they wear, the shoes they choose. So besides finding a picture of someone who I think fits the character I had in my head, I also search for wardrobe ideas. Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram are great resources, but you can simply do an internet search for “wardrobe outfit ideas”, choose images, and I think you’ll be inspired by what you find!

Of course, people aren’t only what they look like. They also have individual ways of walking and talking; their own quirky little habits; even the way they smell may be unique. When you’re trying to make a fictional character seem real, don’t forget about all the little things. I like to give my characters hobbies. Almost everyone has something they enjoy doing, even if they don’t make the time for it. You can give them a hobby or past-time that you like or maybe something you wish you could do, but know you would never be able to—like fly a plane or climb a mountain. There are so many things you can add to your characters’ lives and personalities to help the reader understand who they are, and help them relate to them when they read your story.

For locations, you can use the previously recommended search sites, but since I like to base my books in the area I live, the Pacific Northwest, I actually go straight to Google Maps and find some nearby locations that I think will fit the settings I had in mind. If I’m creating something that doesn’t already exist, I usually look for a spot in the area that will allow me to do everything I want to. For example, in my second book MYND Control, I really wanted the CEO of Neilmann to have a view of both the Space Needle and the Puget Sound from her office. So I searched around in downtown Seattle until I found the perfect location.

Once I determine where everything is, I like to drive around and visit my real and imaginary locations so I can get a good understanding of how far everything is from each other and what kind of drives they are. Are they paved or dirt? Divided or one-lane? I could simply drive them virtually using Google Maps, and I do that as well, but it’s much more interesting (and fun!) to get in my car and drive to the real, physical places. Then I take pictures of every location and decide what season of the year would best match the feeling I want my novel to portray. Dark and moody? Maybe it should be winter? New beginnings? Maybe spring would be better? You get the idea.

After I’ve decided on the characters and locations, and I’ve found all the pictures online or taken them in person, I pull all the images into my writing app, Scrivener (which I’ll gush about in a later blog). That way I can bring them up and look at them as I write about them.

It’s not only settings and people, however, that make a story seem real. It’s also the things that happen, the activities people do, the way they react, etc. And my stories almost always have something unreal in them. For example, in my first book, The RH Factor, I created the RH Serum, and in MYND Control, there was both the MYND Control application and the headgear. I also imagined some futuristic capabilities for today’s smart devices. The way I make these types of ideas more realistic is to research similar things that already do exist that are as close as possible to what I’m trying to create. Then I imagine them as more. After I’ve written the book, I check with the experts. Both an M.D. and a neurologist proofread MYND Control for me to ensure my conceptualized medical and technological capabilities were as realistic as possible—that I had created fictional realism.

There are many other ways to ensure a novel can make its readers feel like they’re in the story. I could probably write an entire book covering only ideas about how to make your fictional book seem real. But I want to close with a thought. Way back in the 1980s, I read a book titled, Living a Beautiful Life, by Angela Stoddard. It was about how to live your best life every day by not waiting until special days like birthdays, holidays, or getting your house ready to sell or rent, before you use all your precious things. It also encouraged you to take the small amount of extra time to make your surroundings as nice as you can, especially while you’re doing something you don’t enjoy. Maybe that means lighting your favorite candles and eating some of your favorite chocolate while you’re paying bills, or doing your taxes. Or perhaps it’s drinking wine at night in your expensive crystal instead of the cheap glasses you got on sale because you were afraid of breaking your good ones? What good do these nice things do for you if they just sit in a closet waiting for the one day of the year you pull them out?

What does this have to do with fictional realism? I’m suggesting this idea can go both ways. Why not make your realism more like fiction? What if you made your everyday life more like a novel? Use your best china, dress like your favorite character, pick up a new hobby you’ve always wanted to try but perhaps were afraid to attempt. Life is short. Maybe you can’t live your life exactly like one of the characters you love from your favorite book. But perhaps you can make small changes so your life is just a bit more fun and interesting every day!

61 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Feb 12

I love the details you include in your books. They really help me feel and see the space around the character in each scene.

bottom of page