As an author, I’ve encountered reviews and opinions about how a story doesn’t resonate with readers because it didn’t seem “real enough.”
My first push-back response to that criticism is usually a strong defense of the genre. “It’s fiction and by definition, ‘not real.’ “
But, when you look deeper at what the reader’s trying to say, you realize that this critique is neither trite nor glib.
Here’s what I mean:
How Realistic Should Fiction Stories Be?
Researching The Story
One of my favorite stories is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I’m a sucker for period pieces, especially the British stuff. That’s been since childhood and I blame that on being Jamaican. I’ve seen more than a few incarnations of the story. The first being the 1983 version with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke, which I watched repeatedly. Reading that book was a natural extension of my enjoyment of the story as well as a quest for information.
The scene were Jane was a child, reading a book before being accosted by her cousins piqued my curiosity. I had this other story in my head and when I read Jane Eyre, that book caught my eye. The book was real. I could use it as research for my historical story (when I’m ready and able to start that in a few years).
That book began my research into understanding the idea I had and just how flexible I could be with the history. There were enough gaps during that time that I could play around with it and just have a great time building my world, so to speak.
That same concept applied to Eyubea Girls, Story of Us and even book four in the Baxter Family Saga series. Eyubea was my first, deep historical women’s fiction storytelling attempt and it was a particular challenge. I dug into the histories of three countries and basically did my best to put myself in the southern African continent during the 1906/7/8 time period. That was well before two of history’s most documented events.
Research helped inform me about the time I’m writing about and I felt the weight of my own expectations to get something right.
When Readers Say the Story Doesn’t Feel Real
I’ve learned that you’ll have readers who’re experts in the subject you’re writing about share their comments. Case and point, there are many doctors who basically say that Grey’s Anatomy is far more exciting than what really happens. Some claim they can’t stand the show because it’s not real.
That’s one of the cases where ‘real’ just isn’t sexy enough to draw and keep an audience interested for 10+ years.
When we try to intertwine real elements to make our stories feel more real, we get some who say, ‘cool, good job,…” There are others who will rake you over the coals and say “this wouldn’t have happened this way. This sucks…” and the list goes down hill.
Those are the ones that niggle us because at the end of the day, we like to feel that we’re contributing positively to the human imagination. That’s when we come out with “that’s supposed to be fiction so your opinion is invalid.”
Not so fast.
The Attitude About Our Writing Latitude
Yes, we have a certain amount of latitude, poetic license, if you will, as fiction authors and we play with that religiously. But when it comes to criticisms, sometimes that latitude blinds us to understanding what the reader is really telling us.
We argue that we can bend facts and figures as we see fit. History is already written and the judges are watching and waiting.
We get that.
But, still, the skin is thin and knowing that we can and will meet our critics doesn’t lessen the bruising.
If we want to survive, we have to remember a few things:
- We did our best – Writing is not easy and neither is research. Trying to weave between the facts makes things even more complicated. But if you feel that you’ve left it all on the table, you can say you did the best you could to pull that idea out of your head and put it into words.
- The story is solid – You did what you needed to do. Researching, asking, editing without mercy or consideration. After all that, the story feels good. It’s at least as solid to you as the stones they’ll throw at you.
- At the end of the day, it’s OUR story – What’s yours is yours. You came up with the idea, the people you write about have sat in your life, in your head, for eons. It’s your story to tell and you’re telling it with no shame.
That’s not to say that you should ignore the call out about that helluva hole that weakens the story and makes it inaccurate.
If you find someone who made a significant observation that needs to be fixed, fix it and thank them.
Mistaking pride for confidence will gut you.
What About That OTHER Unsatisfied Reader…
You’re solid, your book is solid, and your confidence is high. You still have those who say that it’s not real enough or that it’s too real.
To the latter, I take that as a compliment because that means I hit a nerve. My goal is to hit a few of those every-so-often just because I have a sick need to get into a reader’s mind.
I admit it. No shame here. It’s good
But the former, those who don’t think it’s real enough to be good, I let them be. I don’t let them penetrate.
For some readers, it’s hard to trust the writing of someone they don’t know or aren’t familiar with. We ask them to lend us their imagination, to suspend their disbelief and trust us to tell them the story in our way.
They either can’t or just won’t.
There’s trust involved in reading fiction. Some people choose to put up defenses against reading certain types of books. They think it’s not going to be good enough or well-written enough to be enjoyable. It’s like going into a relationship needing that guarantee that it’ll work out.
That’s why some come out with those silly requests about warning readers about your story or telling them about the PoV first. They’re skittish about taking that risk.
I get it. It’s hard. There’s crap out there and whose to say I’m not one of the craptastic?
All I can say is my stories are informed by real life, real history with a healthy dose of my imagination. I’m not here to tell it in a different way. I’m just trying to weave the story I have between and around the real.
Sometimes, I’ll score. Sometimes I won’t even register. Other times, I’ll fall flat on my face in a pile of horse shit 💩(I’ll introduce Camille soon)
That’s just how it is.