Tag Archives: characters

Get Real

In literature, realism has a technical meaning. Or two. Or maybe three. In a general sense, it refers to representing characters as they really are, or would be if they weren’t fictional. It means writing about people without glamorizing them, without glossing over their failings, presenting everything–even the most banal aspects of their lives–exactly as it would be.

Realism renders characters, well, real. That’s good. We relate better to real characters than to stereotypes or caricatures. Even superheros have to be real in a certain sense: they must have weaknesses. Even “truth, justice, and the American way” characters sometimes struggle with the impulse to lie or the desire for revenge rather than justice.

But like anything else, realism can be carried too far. Do you want to watch every character go through every trivial moment of their day? Of course not. You don’t care what they had for breakfast Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… You might care if Joe had an argument with his wife during breakfast. Or if he received a shocking text message while munching on his toast, choked, and ended up at the hospital. But if nothing happened except he ingested some crispy bread? Nah.

Even the details of most people’s jobs make for bland reading. I write computer software. You might think that would be interesting. To me, it generally is. But if I led you step by step through a typical day on my job, you’d be yawning before the first half hour was up. Some fiction–such as the mysteries I write–does follow people through their work days, but not in excruciating detail. I may show a detective doing their paperwork, but only as background to something more interesting. Nobody wants to watch somebody fill out forms. Moreover, not being a detective myself, I’m sure I don’t get everything right. Probably some of what happens in my novels would not happen in real life. How important is that? It depends. If you’re a detective or know more about detective work than I do, you might gripe. But to be honest, so long as I don’t make any gross errors, it’s not all that important. I’m telling a story, not documenting a day in the life of a cop. If you’re pulled into the story, then it works, unreality and all. Don’t believe me? Consider how much unreality works its way into novels and TV shows and movies. Real crime scene investigators sometimes wish they had all the gadgets their TV counterparts do. Quite honestly, unreality can keep us on the edges of our seats more effectively than reality.

So there is a balance to be struck: stories should be real enough to be convincing, but not excruciatingly real. Fiction is, after all, fiction, not reality. I sometimes compare writing to another art I practice, bonsai. In bonsai, one trains the growth of a small tree grown in a pot in such a way that it gives the illusion of being a full-grown tree. But many of the principles bonsai artists follow are entirely artificial. Branches should not cross, for example. In nature, branches will grow any way they can to get to the light, but in a bonsai the branches must be carefully pruned and shaped. It’s not a natural tree. It’s a contrived tree that gives the illusion of being natural, which the best bonsai actually do. Same with stories. They aren’t reality, but when well written, they can give the illusion of being real.

In the process, a lot of reality is necessarily left out.

A Walk in the Park

On September 20, 1976 at Northwestern University, I met a bright young lady who would before long become my wife. One day that fall I happened to be in her dorm room looking at a poster hanging on her roommate’s wall, a gorgeous photograph of forested mountains draped in the oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. As I admired the poster a story came to mind, and in short order I wrote the first draft of “National Park.”

To be honest, it wasn’t very good. I still had a lot to learn about writing in those days. Over the years, the story was rewritten and recast several times. You can read the current incarnation here, and I suggest you do before going on, because what follows is a serious spoiler.

Initially the story featured one lone character making a climb up a treacherous mountain. The climb lasted only a few pages, and was followed by a startling revelation. (This is where the spoiler comes in, so if you haven’t read the story yet, better do so now!) I left the climber intentionally anonymous, to emphasize what I hoped would be a stunning transformation from the richness of the natural world  to the desolation of the city in which he finds himself.


That’s right: the National Park isn’t a natural wilderness at all, but a virtual reality experience. The climb didn’t happen except in the character’s head. The story was a cautionary tale about the destruction of the natural world and how increasingly we were being severed from it.

Not bad for 1976, a time when the term “virtual reality” hadn’t even been coined, although a few SF writers had created virtual reality stories before (Bradbury’s brilliantly chilling short story, “The Veldt” comes to mind). Alas, it wasn’t a well-written story.  Over the years I would rewrite it several times.

Even in its improved forms, readers didn’t seem to know what to make of it. One editor rejected it with the comment that although he enjoyed it, at the end all I’d done was to build up the danger to the climber and then reveal that he hadn’t been in any danger at all. Obviously the guy totally missed the point. The danger is real; it’s just not what it first appears to be.

Others told me to give the climber a name, and as I learned more about the sport of climbing, I added considerable detail to the preparations and the climb itself. I also added some other characters, partly to increase the realism and partly to increase the tension. Last but not least, the original story didn’t have a very good hook. The current version starts with one of the climber’s companions suggesting that he’s going to die on the mountain.

Today, virtual reality stories are so commonplace that I doubt “National Park” would excite any editor. So it is now relegated to my files and this blog. But I hope you enjoy it anyway.


Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a well-worn adage for writers: “Write what you know.” Problem is, I don’t know anything.

That’s not strictly true. I’m an expert software developer. I’m an amateur astronomer and have a long-standing interest in physics.  Although not an expert yet, I’ve learned a bit about the art of bonsai. But most of my skills and interests have little to do with anything I write.

Some regard “write what you know” as cliche rather than solid writing advice, but there is a point in it. When you’re a writer, your knowledge and life experiences worm their way into your stories. Fragments of personalities you’ve encountered in real life show up in your characters, and their lives will mirror aspects of your own.

Here’s a small example. In True Death, one of my characters vents his rage by taking an axe to a downed tree. That tree was, in a sense, a real downed tree, one that fell into my swimming pool during a storm a few years before the story was written, although I didn’t hack it to bits while thinking murderous thoughts.

Regardless, fiction writers of necessity write about what they don’t know, too. I’m writing a detective series, yet I’ve never been a detective or a police officer. Indeed, I’ve only known two police officers, and I’ve talked very little with either about their work. Unlike Rick Peller, my main character, I don’t know what it’s like to learn that my wife has been killed. (That’s an experience I don’t want to have, either.) Unlike Eric Dumas, another of my detectives, I don’t know what it’s like to suffer massive rejection. Indeed, I’ve never lived in Howard County, although I’ve worked there a couple of times.

So how do you write what you don’t know? Research, for one thing. Primarily, I research online to learn about places and things, processes and procedures. But not everything can be readily researched that way. What about characters’ backgrounds and experiences and thoughts and emotions?

Easy! I make it up as I go along.

That may sound dicey, but it works. Maybe I get lucky. Or maybe I actually do know more than I think.