Let’s Get Real About Realism


I write fiction.

What kind of fiction?

Umm…the kind in which the story isn’t real.

The idea that I should belong to a certain literary camp frustrates me. An ex-editor from The New Yorker once labeled me as “New Weird,” my work heavy on speculative elements (particularly horror) but not necessarily speculative fiction. My first publication, though, was in a speculative fiction magazine. So am I speculative? Or, because a lot of my stories involve animals or other unnatural, strange entities and yield some morality, does that make me a fabulist? Or, because most of my stories exist in a reality similar to the one we’re experiencing now, does this make me a magical realist? Or, because not all of my pieces have “magical” elements, would I label myself a realist?

One thing I know for sure: I’m not a realist. How am I so confident in this? Simple: I don’t believe in it.

Realism is a loaded word with connotations that vary depending on whom you ask and what research you’re completing. Every resource I found on the topic had one common idea: realism relies on an accurate depiction of reality—real people in circumstances and settings real people can experience. Character-driven fiction is one of the primary functions of realism, the complexities of everyday life compelling enough to drive narrative. On the surface, this makes sense, especially if you read literary fiction. However, to suggest that reality is an objective space and to say that a single person’s complexities can be accurately portrayed in a short story—well—I suggest you get outside more and experience existence, for this attitude oversimplifies the world and everybody in it.

First, let’s tackle reality.

All short stories requires the writer to build parameters. Like the magical realist needs to craft a fictional world that allows the “magic” to exist, the realist is responsible for crafting a space for their “realness” to exist. The issue with realism is that real-ish people and real-ish situations often depend on the reality you and I exist in. However, the writer cannot rely on reality—even history or proven fact—to rationalize what happens in their stories. Yes, our fiction can, and most likely will, reflect aspects of our own lives as well as those around us (in other words, real things), but that doesn’t mean readers have to buy into our portrayal of the real in our short stories. The writer must understand that their story is a stand-alone artifact that must contain all of the context necessary for everything to transpire the way the writer deems fit.

The main reason we can’t rely on reality for our stories to work is because “reality” is a subjective experience, for everyone sees and experiences the world in a different way. Take climate change for example. Scientific evidence proves that it exists, yet a large sect of people aren’t seeing the effects of it, meaning, in their reality, it doesn’t exist. To really see this at work, take any social issue—racism, gender inequality, LGBT rights, gun control—and, even when presented objective facts and statistics, two people can interpret them in entirely different ways. As writers, we are taught that place matters, for our characters will be representative of that place. Like it or not, different places yield different realities. So to rely on reality for our creative work means to rely on our own perceptions of reality, and that may not gel with someone else’s perception of reality, leading to potential [subjective] inauthenticity. We need to treat our stories as all-inclusive works of fiction with established parameters to justify character motivations. This is why I hate the term “world-building”—specifically associated with speculative or science fiction/fantasy—for every single short story must build a world. While readers can disagree morally with our social constructs as well as our characters’ decisions, these same readers should have enough evidence to justify character development.

Let’s flip this: the reader/critic must also accept the subjectivity of reality. For a reader to say “that’s not how marriages go, and I know because I’m married and I have a lot of married friends” is not an effective angle to engage in criticism. Or, for a male reader to say “that woman shouldn’t be writing from a male point of view because I’m a man and this is not how I think” (or vice versa) is absurd. Now, if the writer relies SOLELY on some element of her subjective reality and/or stereotype to present a depiction of marriage or of the opposite sex without completing any research whatsoever, then perhaps some criticism is warranted. However, what matters most is the work done on the page to THESE specific characters. We may know married couples, but we’re reading about THIS fictional married couple. I am a dude, but I’m reading a story about THIS fictional dude. The writer is responsible for getting enough of these characters onto the page for their motivations and tribulations to make sense, and it is the reader’s responsibility to accept the work as fiction and not judge it based on their own subjective reality or moral compass.

Now, onto characters. What I’m about to say may upset some: characters are not people.

The characters we create are just that: characters. We are not creating people, but rather symbols representing the human experience. In the craft book How Fiction Works, James Wood goes as far to say that creating a “round” character is “an impossible ideal” because “characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people” (128). The difference is with complexity. Yes, we strive for our characters to be complex, but humans are too complex to fully capture on the page. The short story views humanity in a vacuum, isolating all of the complexities to an immediate handful of issues (character) that are most impacted by and/or determine the outcome of the immediate series of events (plot). We are taught that short fiction requires the story within the story, something internal impacting something external. Reality, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in such a vacuum, and limiting the human experience to whatever occurs in its immediacy is not an honest reflection of reality.

Our collective experiences make up who we are, what we do, and how we do it. Every single development in my life is at work in every single moment. In this way of thinking, that means that if I were to capture my honest self on the page, my character would be struggling with faith, finances, health concerns, career decisions, identity, people-pleasing, homesickness, and more, all the while balancing graduate school, teaching, you get the picture. The point is that all of these things affect my immediate life. Every decision I make either helps alleviate these issues or builds upon them. My characters simply cannot feel all of these things in my stories for two reasons: readers will get lost, bored, and bogged down in the complexities of the character’s life; and how unsatisfying a read would it be to introduce so many complications and only resolve one or two of them? If our goal is to create people on the page, we will inevitably fail. Characters are, and always have been, symbols. They represent particular aspects of living, and our stories gain universality by showing how a character manages through specific human and/or social issues. Look at it this way: the roundest character would be the flattest human being.

So instead of trying to find labels for ourselves, let’s accept the conceit of the genre: fiction is, and always will be, something made up. Yes, we can tackle real things in real places, or we can expose and/or satirize existing social constructs in an effort to teach. However, our handling of these exists within invented parameters with invented characters doing invented things, and, because not everyone sees the world as you do, readers aren’t required to accept your fiction as anything other than fiction.

I write fiction, and that’s all there is to it.

Druckenmiller-biophotoBrian Druckenmiller has been a chef, emcee, semi-professional wrestler, and college composition instructor. Currently, he is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where he studies fiction, teaches creative writing, and serves on staff of The Florida Review. His fiction has been published in Cleaver and other magazines, and he has a book review published in The Florida Review.


3 thoughts on “Let’s Get Real About Realism

  1. Excellent post. Writers do write from their own perceptions, beliefs, desires, and fantasies to create fiction in any genre. Characters of course are not real, although, to the writer they may become “real” in the moment. Being fantasy driven myself, they do become very real and who is to say or determine – they are not (just kidding). I must believe they are real to write about them. I keep in mind that people believe in things that are not provably real, so …. ergo, my point. Strange, I know. 🙂


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