Reality vs Annoying

Though I tend towards speculative fiction, I’m a big stickler for what I call “reality” – Characters should react realistically to situations. If confronted with a vampire will you instantly believe in them? No. If someone says “I’m a werewolf”, do you buy it? (Hint: the latter has happened to me. My first thought was “this guy is a lunatic.” I was probably right.) If something bad happens, your characters should react realistically, and take time to recover. However, just as different people deal with situations in their own way, so do your characters. While the death of a parent might throw one character into the dregs of depression, another one might bottle it up and move on as though nothing had happened. When my grandfather died one of my Uncles went to the bar and got drunk. The other went bowling with his friends. A reader might call the second one an unrealistic reaction, but it obviously wasn’t for him.

So, even if you know your character’s reactions, how much is too much?  When do “the haunting nightmares” of someone who was attacked by supernatural creatures go from being “haunting” to being “Come on and get over it! Geeze”? When does “Oh, I just met you! I can’t be in love with you, yet!” turn into “For crying out loud, get ON with it!”? etc. etc.

There’s no golden rule. One reader/writer’s “Get on with it!” is someone else’s “But they just met!”, especially in books that cover very short spaces of time. A controversial example is the popular Twilight series. When I took the story out of itself and only looked at calendar days,  Edward and Bella fall in mad, passionate love so fast that it’s mind boggling. But, when I first read the book  it wasn’t horribly paced and didn’t stand out as being too much of a rush.

I think a lot it depends on the genre and “point” of your book. If the main story is the protagonist’s struggle to come to grips with abuse suffered at the hands of their alcoholic father, then 200 pages of emotional turmoil are a good thing. Conversely, if the point of the story is that the protagonist becomes a dragon slayer and saves the kingdom, you don’t really want page after page of wingeing.

Another consideration is how long your book is and how much (1/3, 1/4, 1/2 etc) you want to devote to the reactions of certain incidents. In reality, something like being attacked by killer monsters would probably leave hellacious emotional scars that would never heal, and might lead to psychological problems, but how much of that do your readers want to read? How much of that do you want to write? Will your characters continued reactions slow down the plot (ala Harry Potter’s seventh book and the realistic – but long and boring – camping scenes) or will they fuel it?

If you use those three questions as your guide, then you can’t go wrong. Of course, not everyone will agree with you but, as Ruth pointed out, you’re not writing for everyone.

How much reality do you like in your books? How much is too much?

12 Comments

  1. Judy Croome says:

    Hmmm. How much reality do I like in my books? That’s a far more difficult question to answer than it first seems. Some stories can suck me into believing anything is possible; others have me groaning at the ridiculousness. Some stories make me smell and taste and feel the reality of the scene; others have me yawning. And the difficulty is, I can’t tell which it’ll be when I buy the book – it’s only when I’m well into the story that I know whether it “talks” to me or not.

    Interestingly, I have some reading friends who I often compare books with: there are times when we both react exactly the same about a book (for good or bad) and other times we’ve had opposite opinions. So who knows what the right mix of “magic ingredients” are. Sigh. No wonder writing is such a hard business…there’s no satisfying all of the readers all of the time. The best we can do, I suppose, is aim to please some of the readers some of the time! 🙂
    Judy, South Africa

    1. I think you’re right! One man;s trash is another man’s amazing novel!

  2. Mari says:

    Even in fantasy you have to have a basis in reality. I have to have my readers accept that there are vampire, werewolves, berserks, and ghouls. Thats a stretch in itself. So when things happen, there has to be a real way of showing it.
    If you establish magic, you have to have a system of rules in place. The reader doesn’t have to know the mechanics, but if you stick to your system, the reader will realize that there is a logical cause and effect. So you won’t get “fix everything with magic” type of stories.

    1. Yes, I agree completely. And you have to stick to those rules, too. JK Rowling did that in her last book where she suddenly witched everything up and it just ruined the whole series.

  3. Linda says:

    Come on, J. We need to know more about that guy who said he was a werewolf. Do tell …

    1. ROFL I’d love to hear this, too. What did he say to try to convince you?

      1. ha ha! Well, he was the cousin of another guy I knew at the time. His cousin used to come hang out at my house, so one day he brought this other guy with him – scary looking guy, might I add. So , I let them in and he introduces his cousin and starts talking about how he is really a 100 year old werewolf. He had his “werewolf name” and the whole bit, and supposedly belong to this local pack that was super secret and… yeah. I was home alone with them so I called my brother and was like , “Hey! Guess who’s here? So and so and his cousin – who;s a werewolf!” My poor brother had to drag out of bed and come over, LOL! I will admit, the due was scary enough looking that if there WAS a werewolf he was in a good candidacy – but it wouldn’t be the hot, smexy type!

        1. LOL Wow. That would be creepy. Thanks for sharing. Maybe real-life werewolves wouldn’t be the studs we imagine.

  4. julihoffman says:

    I agree. Even in a supernatuaral story, there has to be that thread of truth, pulling you along. What’s true for you, might NOT be true for me, but if the story is told well, I might still be a believer. I’ve had people say things to me that I WISH I could use in one of my stories, but unfortunately no one would believe a character would talk that way. LOL
    As far as details go, even some of my favorite authors have gone overboard with too much description. Anne Rice and Stephen King are great examples. Both are have writing that is so amazing, I am in awe. I’ve also found myself skipping ahead during some of the descriptions because I just want to know what happens next. Should either of them change their writing styles? Of course not!

    1. I’m guilty of doing that, too! Sometimes I will even skip the “he said” she said” and read only the stuff in quotations. The problem comes when a new person is suddenly talking, or does something and I have to stop and say “Who’s that? How did they get here?” and then backtrack, LOL!

  5. Well, I don’t care if it could really happen in real life. As a writer, I know I need to write with that mindset and aim to, but as a reader, I just want to be entertained. A compelling story that makes me want to find out what happens next is what I hope for when I buy a book. A realistic story is no good if it’s boring.

    1. Especially in speculative fiction, I want to be entertained. Like in a fantasy novel the hero should be just a little too heroic, and the bad guy a little too bad, otherwise what’s the point?

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