Keeping it Real

This is a tough one. “Ohhhh, Murphy, but ya might’ve bit off more ‘n ya could chew wit dis one!”   But why? What does it even mean – Keep it Real? It’s a cliché, isn’t it? A saying? A canard. A thing? Well, yes, but also no.

To me it means: be consistent.

First things first: all stories must be grounded in something which the reader accepts as true. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a true story or not, or whether it’s even possible – it doesn’t even matter how ridiculous it is – as long as the reader can accept it.

For example, how did Douglas Adams manage to convince us to accept the ‘reality’ of his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy? By giving even his extra-terrestrial protagonists large doses of humanity. Like the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox: split personality, with his yin and yang constantly and humorously externalized. And the big, ugly Vogons with their terrible poetry – pretty darned human if you ask me. Thus, even the bizarre can be made believable. Adams gave the human reader something to hang on to to by allowing all his unusual characters human characteristics. And at the same time, by making planet Earth the target of an intergalactic bureaucratic SNAFU (which we all understand), he gave us the powerful emotions of outrage and fear – i.e., a common ground with the book’s main human character, Arthur Dent.

Likewise with the hobbits of J.R.R.Tolkien. They live in hamlets such as we recognize today, build homes very much like ours and use traits that we admire to become believable, lovable, tenacious, pint-sized versions of ourselves. It matters not that they are aided in their quest by elves, dwarves and wizards or that they are fighting against the most unspeakably evil trolls and goblins. It only matters that we believe, and that if we can believe in the hero, everything else will fall into place.

Thus, every outlandish world created in fiction is a blend of what we know to be true and what the writer wishes us to suppose. The ‘different’ builds on the familiar, from which it derives credence. The author establishes reality by reference to the familiar.

This is equally true for more so-called ‘realistic’ tales. If you appreciate that everything  you read is something you’re not living, then whether or not it accords with what you understand as empirical reality makes no difference. It takes skill to pull a reader out of his own life and engage him in someone else’s. Grounding the reader in his own understanding should be the first thing a writer tries to do.

Never underestimate the reader. The reader is smart. The reader is aware. The reader knows when something is not right – according to the world being created – and they will bristle at things that do not add up. The writer, therefore, has an obligation to be faithful to their own creation; to make it full, complete, and correct.

If you give them something to hang on to, they’ll stick with you, no matter what.1054915 (22)

Next time: ambiance


4 thoughts on “Keeping it Real

  1. “Never underestimate the reader. The reader is smart.” So true! I’ve read too many stories, or tried to and put them down, when the author goes off on some tangent, or tries to blur some stickly plot point and hopes we won’t notice. It’s what I think of when I edit my own stories – where have I gone off track? And somewhere, lurking in the back of my mind, I’m thinking “get it right, because the reader knows!”


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