Sep 3, 2015

Writing Honestly -- How To Make Your Story Seem Real

Have you ever noticed how in some books, it feels like the characters, the setting, and the plot are so plausible and realistic that it reads like a true story? I'm not talking about when you get so pulled in that you feel like you're in the story--I mean a story that is so true-feeling that you believe the author must have at least based it on real events or people.
To me it seemed like the only genre that can actually do this is contemporary realistic fiction, and sometimes historical fiction. But when I read Gifts by Ursula LeGuin, and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, I realized that it is possible for even the most unlikely genres, such as fantasy, to have a similar effect.
I thought about it carefully, and I think one of the things that made these two fantasy novels feel so credible was the detailed worldbuilding. It wasn't what you might think of as detailed. It wasn't boring pages of explanations concerning every facet of the geography and culture. Instead, the authors put in the right details here and there to make it come alive. They were the sort of details that authors of contemporary fiction mention off-handedly, the things taken for granted, and often left out of novels because they are so ordinary the reader just assumes they are there. For instance, the fact that the microwave beeps when it's done, or that when you eat watermelon, you're supposed to spit out the seeds even though they're not dangerous to eat, or that the edges of streets have gratings for rainwater to drain into the sewers. Nobody writes about these things, except for off-handed mentions when they come into the main character's path. You might mention how the character heard the microwave beep, so he went to the kitchen to retrieve his re-heated coffee. Or the characters might be having a contest to see who can spit their watermelon seeds the farthest. Or your character might drop her phone between the bars of the rain drain, down into the dank sewer system below, never to be seen again. You see, you don't sit there writing down the facts of these things' existence or describing how they work or their history. You just use them as props on your character's journey.
I think Ursula LeGuin and Rachel Hartman did something like this in their books. And to know such mundane details about their made-up worlds, they must have known their worlds implicitly. They must have thought long and deeply about their settings, perhaps wrote pages and pages of boring description of their worlds in order to become familiar with them, and then used details from that in their actual novel.
This is only a small part of what I think they did to make their stories seem so real. The other part, which I think is a much bigger part, is that they wrote as if they believed in their stories. They believed in their stories and they didn't care if anyone else did. They wrote with confidence, and they wrote with honesty, and I think that is the heart of what makes stories seem real. Because if the author thought their story was real, that comes across very strongly, and the reader will feel it. But if the author thinks they're just writing an impossible fairy tale, then that will come across and the reader will feel that, and I think this is what the majority of authors do. It is great fun to read impossible fairy tales, but it is rare and unforgettable and wonderful when you read a story that feels like it is true. Especially when that story is factually impossible, as with fantasy. And I don't know about you, but I definitely want to be able to write that kind of story.
On my quest to learn to write like that, I had a happy accident and stumbled upon one of the keys to this way of writing. I have been writing a semi-autobiographical story, and it is a very different writing experience from anything else I have ever written. And I have written in a wide array of genres, from historical fiction to contemporary to sci-fi to fantasy. This is obviously contemporary realistic fiction, and though I don't know where in the U.S. it's set, the character lives in a fictional town, and she has a far different family situation from me, my main character is me. Much of the story is made up of her thoughts and feelings as she experiences rather mundane things such as waiting at the airport for her brother's plane to arrive. These thoughts and feelings are all my own, drawn from my experiences in similar situations. And even though the story is easily the most boring I have ever written or even thought of, it is definitely my best writing and more intense and real than anything I've ever written. I'm writing it for myself, and I'm writing it completely honestly, and with the confidence that no one but me will ever read it. Even if they did, they couldn't criticize the story or writing because it's all true and they would be criticizing my life. Which they could do, but it wouldn't hurt my story because it's true. And this makes me able to write very confidently.
I didn't realize to what extent my insecurities in my writing went until I started writing this story. Now I can compare it to any other story I have written and cringe at how weak and bad my other writing is. Because that other writing is not real. It is not me. It is based on other people's expectations of me. In every line I can see how I curbed what I wanted to write into what I thought other people would expect me to write.
I knew before that I was a fairly insecure writer and that I did fit my writing somewhat into what was expected of me, but until now, I hadn't realized what a huge problem it was. I will never be a remarkable writer, and I will likely never care about any of my works enough to make them good enough to be great or even published at all. Because until now I haven't been writing honestly. I haven't been writing confidently. I haven't been writing for me. I have never owned my writing--I have thought of my stories and owned them until I put them on paper in words that were not mine, truly mine. I have wondered with frustration why in so many of my finished stories I can't take credit in good conscience, even from myself. It feels like someone else wrote it, or that I wrote it for someone else and not myself at all.
So I know now that I need to learn to be brave. I need to practice courage. I need to write my own, honest, confident words and stop thinking about what other people might think. Even if I kept on writing what I think other people expect me to, I know I would still upset someone or rub people the wrong way. If that's going to happen anyway, there is no more to fear from writing honestly than from writing dishonestly. In fact, there is less to fear, because I don't want to be blamed for something I wouldn't honestly say. But if I am to be blamed for something that is absolutely true, then I don't mind at all, because whoever is bothered by it can never be right, and that doesn't hurt me in the least.
To recap, I'll summarize the three main elements of what I think makes a fictional story seem true and alive. 1. You must attend carefully to your worldbuilding. Know your world so well that it naturally infuses into your story the way the real world is infused into contemporary fiction. You shouldn't have to force things. Mundane details should just appear in the story, if you develop your world enough. 2. You must write confidently. You have to believe in your story. You have to take it seriously. 3. You must write honestly. I believe this is the most important of the three elements. You truly have to stop thinking about what other people think or expect. To practice and to get an idea of how this kind of honest writing feels, write something that you would never show to anyone else. Write it for yourself. And go deep, dredging up all your secret thoughts and feelings and portraying them the way they really are. Be brave. Keep in mind that you have less to fear from writing the harsh truth than from writing to please other people, because if you write the truth, then how can anyone argue with it? Even if they think they can, you can always rest in the confidence that you wrote what was true, whereas if you write according to what you think is expected of you, you will have little ground to stand on should someone criticize your writing.
So there we have it--a smattered collection of my current thoughts and ideas concerning writing honestly and making a story feel true. Who knows--I may come up with Part 2 sometime. This is something that I'm studying currently, so soon I'll probably have more thoughts on it. I hope this was helpful and maybe encouraging to you! I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, (the more I can learn and the more ideas and perspectives I can hear, the better) so comment below!

-- E.C. Jaeger


  1. Awesome article! So excited to see the next one! =)

  2. Very thought-provoking and inspiring! Your semi-autobiographical project is similar to something I've thought about doing myself, but I've always kind of shied away from getting that personal (I too am an insecure writer). I should follow your lead and simply write it for myself.