Human Realism In Writing

I’ve recently started reading A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin and found myself pleasantly surprised. The voice/style turned out to be exactly what I’ve tried to do in my writing. The characters feel giant and human, they all feel alive as if they are simply people living out their lives. Lives that are being recorded for us to read.

By the first page of the book the sense of realism, and darkness are immediately apparent. It never crosses my mind to think of this as a ‘medieval fantasy,’ or a ‘noble journey’ of someone who comes from poor beginnings and ends up influencing the entire world. Everything is so human which is exactly what I’ve wanted to achieve in my writing. This is all something that I’ve thought about before but recently coming across A Game Of Thrones has rekindled my interest in seeking out ways to achieve the level of human realism that I’m aiming for.

Following is a list of things that I think contribute to achieving that human realism:

1. Being well grounded in your world: Knowing the in’s and out’s of your world will allow you to feel comfortable enough with it to allow spontaneous writing to occur more naturally. Especially simple things such as what’s outside of a window, or the sounds of the city. Think about how easy and natural it is for us to write about our surroundings now. We know them like the back of our hand, and it’s important in any story writing to know your story world that well too.

2. Giving all of your character’s their own unique organic goals, personalities, and history: Time and time again I am finding that one of the most important aspects of any story are the characters. Allowing them to have free will and to use that free will to the best of their ability creates a level of realism that otherwise cannot be achieved. This also allows for new and unanticipated plot developments that can take the overall story in a new and exciting direction.

3. Consistent names: Personally I find naming to be one of the most difficult things for me to do when starting a story that isn’t based in relatively modern times. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I usually end up spending hours agonizing over getting a name down and even when I do I’m not happy with it. Names are what allow the readers and writer to connect with the characters, they are loaded identity markers that instantly influence our perception of the person or place it is attached to. Naming your macho man hero Bob, when your story is set in feudal japan is something that should not be done.

Occasionally I try to make up names on the fly, if the story takes me to a character I hadn’t known about before I usually just type whatever combination of letters comes out and call that his/her name, but more often than not I find myself scanning my surroundings searching for something to draw inspiration for a name from. Which ends up leaving me dissatisfied and never quiet connecting with my character.

4. Bringing your world to life: It’s not enough to know your world like the back of your hand. You also need to use all that information and include it in your story in the form of simple sentences that add that more depth to the environment, or snippets of dialogue picked up at the bar. Even the characters can bring forth pieces of the world, maybe something that just happened has reminded them of a past experience, or feeling toward some aspect of the world.

5. Showing not telling: “Show don’t tell,” was one of the first pieces of advice I received when it came to creative writing. It’s something I like to keep in mind when I am writing and it helps me to cut the amount of narration and increase the amount of dialogue and character interaction. For those of you who are unfamiliar “show don’t tell,” refers to allowing your characters to reveal things about themselves instead of you narrating it to the reader. So if your character Stephen doesn’t like cats, instead of writing “Stephen doesn’t like cats,”  you can have an instance occur where Stephen tell’s someone he doesn’t like cats, or where he comes across a cat and his dislike for them is expressed through his body language or thoughts.

6. Active Writing: Active writing is similar to show don’t tell, in that it address a common challenge experienced by both new and old writers. The tendency to put everything in the past tense, “Stephen was angry at Alice for smashing the dishes,” that would be an example of passive writing. The same instance in active writing goes something like this: “”What are you doing!” Stephen shouted at Alice over the roar of shattering dishes.” (I’m now thinking of the many reasons why this particular event is occurring, and that stirring feeling in the pit of my stomach that I get when a new story presents itself has started up. I’m going to pause here and explore Stephen and Alice a bit further.)

While there are plenty more points that can be made to support bringing that level of realism into a story, these are the ones that I am currently focusing on. It’s a process that involves lots of trial  and error but that will ultimately pay off in the long run. It’s also fun and exciting to see what I am capable of and to achieve things I didn’t consider achievable before.

Is there anything that you feel is essential to achieving ‘human realism’ in your writing?

TTYL (Type To You Later)

Mr. B


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