Make it Real… but Not Too Real…

I’ve never been very good at making things real. At least, I haven’t been very good at this lately.

I used to be an avid fan of the inspirational writer and professional “uplifter,” Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy. As a newly-minted college graduate who couldn’t quite get a piece of writing to past the tenuous first page, I came across the following tip by SARK: “Make the thing real.”

I no longer own, or remember the name of, the book that offered this advice. It may have been Inspiration Sandwich. Or Living Juicy. Or Succulent Wild Women. (I cleaned out a lot of these in recent years as I began to realize that SARK wasn’t really my thing.) However, I do remember the story of SARK’s good friend who was a designer of sheets and linens. He had an idea for bed sheets with wild, vibrant colors, but apparently he wasn’t doing a very good job of selling this concept to his buyer. Not allowing himself to be discouraged, he went home, found a set of plain bedsheets, and made the thing real. Once the buyer had an actual set of the vibrant sheets in front of him, he was able to fully embrace the idea.

This story stuck with me for so many years, probably because I knew that I struggled with making things real. When I write a fiction story, I often have trouble seeing the characters. I can’t always picture them, you know, doing things, or speaking in a way that doesn’t feel forced. If I can’t see the characters, how can I know what their story is? How can I tell that story?

Many writers seem to struggle with this exact thing. To get around the issue, many of us attempt to tell stories about characters who closely resemble people we’ve met in real life. This seems like a fairly standard thing for a writer to do, but my old college writing professor used to advise against it.

“When you insert yourself into a story,” he told us, more than once. “You’ll find the writing is much harder. Remove yourself from the action as much as you can–then, sit back and watch what happens.”

I didn’t quite understand what he meant until recently, when I did some editing for a friend of mine who’d just completed a rough draft of a first novel. She had imagined real-life people, herself included, as all of the characters in the story, and had never gotten around to going back in and swapping names. The result: Every character, from the protagonist to the supporting neighbor next door, was a real person. As I read through, I felt as though I were sitting in the middle of her living room, watching a more exciting version of her life go by.

“Do you think I should go back in and change the names?” my friend asked one day, over the phone.

“I’m not sure,” I said honestly. “At first I thought the real names were weird, but I got used to them eventually. It’s kind of a new concept… like an autobiography with an obviously fictional twist. It could work.”

It could work, but it didn’t yet. Because while there were tiny moments that rang true (I swear I could hear her dad’s voice in my head as I read Chapter Four) the overall story felt a bit, er, overly-sanitized. I tried to explain what I meant.

“In your story, all of these different characters need to come together to overcome this major life obstacle,” I said. “But in the beginning, everyone gets along just fine. Maybe the ending would have more of a payoff if we see these characters really struggle with each other at the start of the story.”

“That makes sense,” my friend admitted. “How do you think I can show that?”

“Well maybe, when the book begins, the main character and her husband aren’t getting along. They’re married, but they’re living like room mates. In fact, maybe they’re closer with their actual room mates than they are with each other. Then, as the story progresses, we have to see them hit a major low point in their marriage before they can really work together to pick themselves back up. That way, at the end of the story, we care more about their journey because we’ve actually seen them grow as human beings, and overcome both internal and external obstacles.”

“Uh huh,” my friend said, sounding nervous. “Those are great ideas.”

“Sure.”

“Right.” She paused for a long time. Then, “I guess I should go back in and change the names, then.”

Yes, she probably should. Because as long as she’s seeing the main characters as herself and her current husband, she’ll never be able to honestly go back in and tear their marriage down. And she does need to tear it down, if she expects the reader to care that she’s going to build it back up again.

When we write, it’s important to make the story real. However, making it real does not mean that we are confined to events and characters that we ourselves have experienced, firsthand. Sometimes, it’s helpful to start with those things–but as my college professor used to say, we must take those real situations and turn them around a bit.

As a teacher, for example, I’ve often imagined stories about plucky young female educators who walk into tough classrooms and attempt to turn her their students’ lives around. But can I really tell that story honestly, without making the female teacher a life-changing goddess?

Yes, I can. For starters, I can attempt to distance myself by telling the story from the point-of-view of one of the students. Maybe I can make the student a young girl, in love with art and poetry, struggling with rigid school rules and curriculum. Maybe the student comes from a poor family; her dad left when she was four years old, and her mom works as a waitress to support the two of them. Maybe she is fascinated by her quirky young teacher, but hesitant to trust. After all, the adults in her life have regularly let her down.

A character like this would be part fourteen-year-old me, part fourteen-year-old students I’ve known through the years. She would be real enough, yet new enough for me to tell her honestly. This is a character I could write. And will write.

And now that his blog entry has come to a close, maybe I’ll go do a little writing…


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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2 thoughts on “Make it Real… but Not Too Real…

  1. Each of my characters contains a little piece of me and people I’ve loved and hated. I think you’re exactly right, though, that the minute you find yourself thinking, “Oh, but I can’t write that! She’d be so mad when she read the book!” is the moment you need to rethink the story. If I can’t write the story without getting divorced or sued, I’m writing the wrong story in the wrong way, or perhaps, the right story at the wrong time. Twenty years from now, the statute of limitations may expire.

    My other thought about you friend’s book is that in real life, we try to protect the people we love, but in fiction we always have to raise the stakes. A timid story is no story at all. We have to be willing to let life happen to characters, regardless of the consequences. I can’t do that to someone I love, but I can do it to someone who doesn’t exist.

    Great stuff, as usual, Sara.

  2. Sara, this is great stuff. I agree with Julie though. You, or your friend, may wish to base a character on someone you know, but you have to do it wisely. Take the one or two characteristics you want from that person, and add to it other characteristics that would make him or her unrecognizable to himself or herself. And voila, that becomes a fictional character. For instance, I would correct you in writing “room mate” instead of “roommate”. Am I (A) wrong; (B) a pain in the butt cousin who doesn’t know what she’s talking about; (C) an English major; or (D) both ways are correct nowadays, but I can’t let it go? You’ve got to write it where I’m going to identify with that person, but no way am I going to think it’s about me!

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