Real, Really Real, Realesque

Sometimes I think that we as writers get too hung up on making things real. By that, I mean really real, or in near perfect correspondence with the way a thing is in outside reality.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a stickler for things like physicality and staying within the laws of physics (or at least having a good in-story explanation of why something behaves outside our reality). Anyone who’s ever been in a writers group with me will vouch for that.

The reason for that is that people have a really thorough grounding in our physical reality. A reader may not spend much time thinking about the way stuff falls, but they will sure as hell notice if things fall wrong, and this will distance the reader from the story.

However, I don’t believe that this grounding in physical reality always carries over to social, economic, or psychological realities. In fact, we often have impressions of these things that are distorted or simply wrong, due to any number of cultural or personal factors. This is so strong that sometimes, making something really real actually takes you away from the way that the reader understands things to such a degree that getting it right produces much the same distancing effect that getting a physical detail wrong will have.

This makes for a tricky balancing act between getting it right (making it really real) which most writers want to do most of the time and getting it to feel right (making it realesque, or story real).

If the really real thing is something that is central to the story or to the writer then, of course, it will often be necessary to make it so, and to give the reader the context they need to understand that this is the way it really and truly works. If however, the really real detail is peripheral, or too far from reader understanding of how it works, then it is often simpler and a stronger choice to go with realesque.

I come at this from the point of view of someone who started out by trying to put some really real stuff into stories about dealing with someone with a mental illness. I grew up in a house with a paranoid schizophrenic, and have spent 40+ years dealing with the really real of being forever tied to someone who is mentally ill. It’s a topic that is important to me.

It’s also one where I have found that really real doesn’t work nearly as well as realesque. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a reader simply flat out disbelieve something that actually happened could have happened that way. And, in response, I have had to go back and reshape the really real into a significantly fictionalized but much more reader-believable realesque. Importantly—very importantly—I think that I have given more people a better understanding of the actual situation that way than I would have if I’d stuck to my guns and insisted on going for the really real.

Because of this, I tend to pick up a grain or two of salt whenever I read someone–usually another writer, but occasionally a reader–obsessing about writers who don’t make the details of their pet obsession really real. In fiction at least, the really real is sometimes less true and less effective than the realesque.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Dec 07 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)