By day I work 60 hour weeks. At night I am a devoted father and husband to the world's greatest family. Somewhere in the non-existent time between the two, I am a writer. Join me from the beginning as I chronicle my adventures to become a successful published author.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Day 17 - The Role of Morals in Writing - Part II: Realism

Yesterday, we discussed the concerning trend in YA Fiction, specifically that an erotic first chapter won a second place. I pointed out the inconsistency with being okay letting kids read vivid sexual scenes (and sex scenes themselves) when most parents in their right mind would not allow a 15 year old to watch porn in the house. Marketing such literature and awarding it prizes for being groundbreaking is not only immoral, it's not even groundbreaking. Sex has been around since man (hence mankind continues to exist...). Selling it cheaply has existed for pretty much forever too.

Today I will begin to discuss a few different ways a scene can be described: Realism, Graphic Realism, and Hyper-Fantasy. Also I will be covering how the method pertains to your target audience. I was originally going to do one post for all of them, but I think it will need one post per item.  This series will now last a week. I hope you enjoy it!


Realism acknowledges the world is not perfect. Writing for a young adult market, or really any market, it is important that the author doesn't wash over the fact that there are both good people and bad people in the world. If you are writing a gritty urban suspense novel, people swear. There are hookers. Drugs are used. You can't create a seedy underbelly of society if they don't do anything seedy.

The aspect of realism that is most often forgotten is the reality of consequences. In most books that are overtly sexual, the depth of real emotional trauma, sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, and more is cast by the wayside. Instead of creating depth, the characters become silently impervious to the results of their actions other than minor aspects of betrayal. This is not all situations. Some really fantastic fiction authors bravely explore teen pregnancy, adoption choices and abortions, HIV, herpes, and other consequences of sex. I applaud those authors who deftly give these issues their due diligence.

The next consideration in realism is that it does not require everything to be spelled out. Saying "He swore like a sailor" allows the reader to use their mind to fill in the blanks of what that means, adding to personal immersion and character relatability. You could alternatively actually spell out the words.

You can also use situational implication with time-breaks. Thus, instead of explicitly describing an unwed teenage couple getting naked and having sex (or any couple for that matter), you can write about the emotional lead-up, the trepidation, the excitement, and the blood racing. If you were me, this would be written very generally and tamely. Then you use a time break and say something to the effect of "When he woke up to the cool air on his chest and looked over at Casandra, he realized what he had done...". The writing is real, the emotions are conveyed enough to move the story forward excellently, and everyone knows what happened without describing every nuance of their first sex experience. This gets into Graphic Realism, which we will discuss tomorrow, both good and bad.

Finally, realism includes the positive aspects of life. No person is completely devoid of redeeming qualities. The Nazi's, including Hitler, loved nature and caring for it. They were also psychopaths who treated nature better than the Jews, invalids, and political opponents. No underbelly of society is made up completely of people who only care about the money or power. There are always some who yearn for something more, even at the cost of their own lives. When you add the positive realism into the dark side of individuals, people,   and lives, it adds depth, character, and a level of realism that makes them all the more vivid in the reader's mind. It creates what David Wolverton calls Resonance. Even if we find the character disgusting, we find them believable and discover to our horror (or delight) that we have something in common with the monster. It allows us to see our own demons or redeeming qualities.

How much realism you should include is going to depend slightly on your market. You don't create complex characters and situations in a toddler board book. But some sense of depth and resonance should begin as early as early elementary grade reading. It is a powerful tool to help children understand early on that what they do has consequences. For older audiences, even a farce requires realism. Fantasy should have real consequences within it's physical and spiritual motif.

Just remember: If you shun realism for stereo-typed characters and environments, audiences of most ages will not feel resonance, and your writing will not succeed in the marketplace.


Nice post, Matt. Orson Scott Card deals with this in his books. My husband cannot stomach them because they are too "real". But I appreciate that the characters aren't whitewashed. Not that his characterization doesn't sometimes make me squirm, but if someone gave a bit more show than tell in the scriptures, I think they'd make me squirm some, too.

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