Realism is at the forefront of my mind when I’m writing, and that goes far beyond what is merely ‘believable’. A young adult psychological thriller teams aspects of coming of age with life’s dark paths, and that takes some convincing. It’s less ‘believed’ but more ‘experienced’, just like any good novel ought to be. If you want to write realistic characters that don’t conform in today’s YA market, then read on for my two cents.
Lord of the Rings is ‘believable’, not because its components are real, but because they’re relatable on some level. We don’t empathise with Frodo because we’ve all had to carry a magical ring to Mordor, though many of us probably wish we had. We empathise because we all know how it feels to carry an incredible burden. We know he feels morally and ethically obliged to see it through, and at the cost of his own life, if necessary. We even know why Sam tags along as his devoted friend.
Our humanity guides every decision we make in our lives, whether you’re burdened with a magical ring of power, or burdened with making a cup of tea.
So what happens when you want to write about someone who doesn’t have a moral compass? What if you want to write about somebody who can’t empathise at all? What if your character is, essentially, broken?
That’s a tough one. To use a well-known character, take Patrick Bateman, for example. He’s a product of corporate America, right? There’re probably many contributing factors that make Patrick Bateman who is. In fact, they’re explored quite vividly in the novel American Psycho. Patrick is led by the social ‘norms’ of his particular circle; ‘norms’ he exploits to achieve his ever-climbing standards of power and insatiable thirst for it. All the while, he’s competing with people just like him. It’s an infuriating, pointless, void of an existence. He’s the personification of an ugly part of all of us living in a capitalist society.
And that’s what makes him such a compelling character. It’s the fact that no matter how gruesome or unfathomable he gets, there’s a part of us that recognises that in ourselves. Even if he’s an extended metaphor for it, we recognise it. We’ve all been victims of that power-hungry nature, either internally or externally. We’ve at least encountered it before and been (ideally) repulsed. Another popular example would be Tyler Durden in Fight Club; another personification of the same truths, if reversed. Tyler is the rejection of Bateman’s culture; he’s the inner rebellion.
Awareness is the binding thread. If our protagonist isn’t someone we’d necessarily champion, then it’s the awareness of their role, or their circumstances, or their inner demons, that compels us to read on. We’re exploring something we recognise; we don’t necessarily condone it, but we recognise it. We identify with it on some level, even if it’s only to gawp, or reel back in horror. Perhaps we even empathise. If we do, then what does that say about us? Are we really so removed from it all?
The matter of ‘realism’ takes on many dimensions. It isn’t simply a point of aesthetics, or world-building, or a character’s idiom. It’s in the grimy bits below the surface. It’s the monster we are forced to recognise in ourselves, if briefly, just to get a snapshot; enough to write a story about it. Then we cover them back up again, and pretend they aren’t there. That’s the luxury of a story. We get to pretend it’s all fictional.
But it isn’t. There are monsters in the real world. There are people that see a command where we see propaganda. They filter things differently to us; the world bends to suit their particular fairytale. Atrocities ensue. So if it’s enough to just read about them in the news, why write stories about them? Why have unreliable narrators and dysfunctional protagonists we can’t root for? Why write about monsters?
Ah, but you already know. It’s because writers are explorers. We make things tangible through our writing. The novel-writing process is a torch in the darkness. As quickly as we shed light on something, we’re plunging it in darkness again. Saucy stuff, this writing bizz, ain’t it? But therein lies the key to this whole ‘realism’ thing. It’s not necessarily the destination, but the journey, as the saying goes. Writers are searchers and explorers, and the novels are our letters home.
We’re saying, ‘Look, Ma, I discovered a monster!’
Curiosity is the key to realism. If we don’t explore our curiosities – if we focus only on aesthetics and marketable, ‘relatable’ characters we can champion – we miss out on the juicy bits. If you want to write a realistic character, you need only look at the world as you know it and twist it a little. Ask lots of ‘what ifs’. Discover monsters. They’re probably just friends you haven’t made yet.
And who says you can’t champion that?
Ava Bloomfield lives by the sea with her partner Matt and their Scottish Terrier, Sputnik.
When she’s not busy with her day job as a transcriber, Ava can be found rummaging in
charity shops for hidden treasure, mooching about in her local library, or writing her next novel.
Ava writes stand alone books about angsty teenagers.
Check out: Honest, All Girls Cry, Leap and Beyond on Goodreads.
Ways of chumming up to Ava:
Alternatively, send her a psychic message over the cosmos. She’s not quite tuned into it yet, but she’s certain it’ll happen any day now.