Melanie Glinsmann

Writing my way through the cubicle jungle one day at a time

Why Reality Matters Even In Fiction

It’s been an interesting few days around here, to say the least.

Two inmates escaped from the local prison last Friday. Police, state patrol, and even U.S. Marshall officials coordinated search efforts across the city. The first day, the search centered in a different part of the city. On the second day, things shifted to within a few blocks of where I live. One of the escapees was eventually caught not far from me after seeking shelter in a drainage ditch culvert. (As I write this, the other man is still on the run, and the search extends to other cities.)


(*Updated 6/15 – Police just announced the second inmate was captured earlier this evening. Thank goodness.)

When an escaped convict is in your neighborhood, it’s only natural to be a bit nervous. In addition to following updates on the local news and through the police department social media accounts, I began listening to the police scanner channel through an app on my phone. The original intent was to hear any updates on the search for the escapee. But as I listened to the ongoing reports, I couldn’t help but think how I could use the events in a new writing project.

One of my favorite things about being a fiction writer is creating new worlds and characters. Even with real settings, writers use those places for their own purposes, making up schools, buildings, and organizations within that place. Events within the story are created in a writer’s mind. The characters within the story are visions of people the writer wants to meet. But those places and people still need to be believable.

As I listened to police scanner reports, there were run-of-the-mill traffic stops and taking drunk drivers to detox, but there were a number of more serious events – a burglary in progress, multiple calls regarding suicide threats, and a number of domestic disturbances/fights. These were real people with real concerns, and real men and women serving as officers who responded to each concern.

As much fun as it is to write about fictional people and places in a novel, a significant challenge for any fiction writer is capturing this human reality. It’s one thing to write about a teenage boy struggling with depression, but conveying the raw emotion and anxiety of contemplating suicide is another. Writers cannot simply say “He thought about ending his life,” and expect readers to grasp the humanness of a character.

Most readers say that one thing they appreciate about their favorite authors is the ability to make characters seem realistic. But how does a writer actually do that? Developing believable characters is hard enough, but making those characters truly come alive is something few writers accomplish on a regular basis.

I freely admit I am still learning how to do this, but there are some things I do that are helping me translate real people into a fictional world.

  • People Watching – I love to watch people, really watch them. I’m not only looking for interesting physical traits or fashion statements. I look for non-verbal clues that indicate what the person is feeling and thinking. Facial expressions, posture, arm position and the like tell a lot about what a person feels. On a daily basis, I watch how my co-workers respond, both verbally and non-verbally, to conversations and announcements. My favorite places to people watch are large public areas like malls, and especially airports. The diversity of people coming and going provides great insight in human interaction.
  • Read books with great characters – There are a number of authors who do a great job of developing strong characters. I have favorite writers, both from classic literature and modern writers, who create characters who are both unique and relatable. Studying physical, emotional, and mental traits of other fictional characters helps develop my own characters.
  • Read biography and memoirs. – Reading about real people and events helps in understanding the variety of ways people respond to circumstances. The way I talk to others and react to concerns is much different than another person might. By reading about others’ lives, I can take those reactions and thoughts and incorporate them into my fictional characters.
  • Television – This is one I use sparingly as most television is centered on one-line jokes or reality television that is so heavily edited, all viewers see is the most sensational elements. Every once in a while, there are shows or movies that depict strong characters, both in dramatic and comedic roles. Choose the shows wisely, but studying the mannerisms and dialogue of a strong television character can help create a strong novel or short story character.

Regardless of how a writer develops characters, readers expect to find realistic characters. Developing strong characters is not easy, but over time, writers who observe real people and events, both as they happen and from the past, can translate those observations to their fictional worlds.

** What do you look for in a good fictional character?

**Do under-developed characters influence whether you stop reading a book or choose not to read another book by the same author?


Leave a Reply