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A Few Good Ways to Add Realism to Your Story

Updated on August 13, 2016

Nearly everyone has experienced reading a book that seemed to suck you in. You forget where you are, who you are, and become completely immersed in the vivid world created by the author. Some authors just seem to have the innate ability to create a fictional landscape or characters that feel real. How can this effect be recreated in our own writing? We will look at a few ways to add more realism to your story or novel.

Walk a Mile in Your Character's Shoes

This is the simplest and most readily available way to create more realistic characters and all of their corresponding emotions, fears, and motivations. Spend some time projecting yourself into the character's current situation. Take time to mentally or physically re-enact the story conflicts and problems faced by each character.

This is best done in a quiet, private place, or with a trusted reading/critique partner. I use this technique while on long walks, but use whatever works best for you.

Examine your own emotions carefully, as though you were actually the one facing down the villain or conflict. Consider if any of those emotions apply to your characters and write them in accordingly. Think carefully how you want the reader to feel.

In her book Breathing Life Into Your Characters, Rachel Ballon brings up an interesting point in a segment called Writers as Therapists, on pages 69-71. She says,

You can’t remain distant or removed from your fictional characters. You have to become involved in their psychology so you can discover what makes them tick.”

This is an excellent piece of advice, but harder to actually do than it may seem. You have to be willing to “feel your feelings,” as they say. This can be a tough undertaking, and the more disconnected your are from your own psychology, the more difficult this process will be.

Expect to cry when your character cries, to rail against the sufferings of your past right alongside your character, to feel the same fury, fear, love, and longing.

As stressful as this seems, it’s worth it because this can lead to a character that your reader will laugh, cry, love, and rage along with. A reader can more easily empathize with a character that has more “human” psychology.

Which leads us to our next technique...

Apply Clinical-Based Human Psychology

The study of human psychology is a varied and information-rich place to mine for character flaws, motivations, mental or emotional weaknesses, reactions, and character choices. There are many resources from psychology books written just for writers to more medical or clinical psychology textbooks.

For the purposes of this article, we'll look at another example from Rachel Ballon's Breathing Life Into Your Characters.

On page 141, there is a segment on defense mechanisms and how we use them. She defines defense mechanisms as:

unconscious attempts of a person to protect himself against threats to the integrity of the ego and to relieve tension and anxiety resulting from unresolved frustrations and conflicts”

What does this mean for character building, you ask? Well, it’s a, sort-of, loose road map by which you can track your character’s reactions to conflicts and problems throughout your story.

If my character has the defense mechanism of denial, for instance, I know that he or she will not deal with the conflicts of the story directly, but will instead naturally attempt to divert the focus and attention to outlying or irrelevant issues. Denial would prevent the events of the story, and the problems that arise, from being resolved. This fills in a portion of the character’s inner emotional landscape, making it a little more clear as to which choices your character naturally will lean towards.

Using these kinds of psychological decision-making mechanisms adds a more “human” feel to your characters. But we needn't stop at just defense mechanisms. There is a whole world of different phobias, disorders, syndromes, pathologies, and psychoses that can color our characters' minds and behaviors.

Which carries into...

Become A Research Superhero

It almost goes without saying... Good research is essential, whether you are writing a modern contemporary story, a sci-fi futuristic novel, or an historical epic. Researching setting, dress, language, social customs, and occupations will give your story a real feel, by allowing you to write from a position of knowledge and accuracy.

One of the best ways to research your story's setting is to visit the place in which it will be located, or the place or places being used for its inspiration. This will allow you to take note of the sounds, the people, the architecture, etcetera, which you can write into your story to add richness and liven-up the backdrop.

Some of us simply don't have the option to travel for whatever reason, but don't let this stop you. There are city guides, travel guides, travel websites, and even YouTube where you can collect information on the desired location.

For historical stories, there is a large volume of information and publications available, from scientific-based anthropological and archaeological papers to books authored by experts in the field, periodicals written by historical societies to historical tours of sites such as forts, castles, and ancient sites. Even the internet can be used for this, if you check the sources. These things will give you access to local customs of the time-period, style of dress, foods, occupations, living conditions, and societal norms.

This is also a good time to work out character sheets and inspiration photos.

Don't stop with just these suggestions. Be creative, but remember to check all sources, to be sure that you are getting accurate information. And remember that our understanding of historical events evolves as we learn more over time, so what is touted as accurate now, may not be in ten years.

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Breathing Life into Your Characters
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Rachel Ballon, PhD. helps us dig into the deep recesses of our minds, and the minds of our characters, in order to craft a rich world of wonderfully alive characters that will dazzle our readers.



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