It’s no secret that right now, genre fiction has the spotlight. For years now, romance has dominated the writing industry in terms of sales, and sci-fi and fantasy have a grip on our media landscape. Some authors have found success in writing to this market and continue to build their audience. Every year we get a new slew of sci-fi blockbusters, high fantasy bestsellers, and YA fantasy making big waves in the art world.
But honestly, that’s not for everyone.
Some of us just want to write relatable and realistic fiction about regular people dealing with real issues without worrying about worldbuilding, fake languages, or mythical creatures. And there’s still a place for that sort of story! Writers like Donna Tartt, Markus Zusak, John Green, and Angie Thomas prove that the market for realistic fiction is alive and well.
That leaves us with a few questions, though. What is realistic fiction, really, and how does it differ from other dragon-and-magic-exempt genres? And more importantly, how do you write it?
In this article, we’re here to take a closer look at what realistic fiction is, what makes it unique, and how to go about writing realistic fiction of your own.
What is realistic fiction?
When we talk about genre, the lines can get blurry pretty quick. Even when we’ve narrowed a book down to a genre, subgenre can keep making it hazy. Does The Fault in Our Stars count as realistic fiction, drama, or tragedy? How do we even start to categorize works like The Secret History, which act as part murder-mystery, part thriller, part coming-of-age, and part realistic fiction?
Well, the truth is, it depends on how you look at it.
And when it comes to realistic fiction, it gets complicated.
At the surface level, realistic fiction is defined as fiction which depicts events which might have occurred to real people in a realistic setting. Basically, if all of it seems like something that could actually happen, you’re dealing with realistic fiction.
Hold on, you might be thinking: isn’t most fiction realistic fiction, then? What about all those genres like romance, thriller, or crime, where the events could realistically happen?
Like I said before, these genre divisions aren’t perfect, and there’s some overlap. But other genres like crime, mystery, and romance have their own sets of genre conventions and tropes that readers expect to find. Romance, obviously, will focus on a romance between two (or more) characters. A story about a detective trying to crack a cold case is probably going to be shelved with mysteries at your local library.
But that’s still pretty vague. Let’s get a little more into how we can identify realistic fiction and set it apart from other genres which use believable character archetypes, real-world events, and real-world issues. Along the way, we’ll pick up some tips for writing our own realistic fiction!
What to include in realistic fiction
Let’s look at some criteria for what we should include in realistic fiction.
1. Contemporary setting
Realistic fiction should be contemporary to the time it was written. Events should happen either in the present or recent past–there isn’t a hard rule for this, but as a guideline, characters should be dealing with issues that pertain to the modern world. It should be relatable to the reader’s present-day problems.
2. Believable events
Like we mentioned earlier, characters and events should be believable. This doesn’t mean boring! Lots of extraordinary things can conceivably happen to real-life people, and lots of seemingly everyday things can be described in extraordinary ways.
For example, a realistic fiction book might describe a boy coming of age in a public school in Texas. Plenty of people grow up in Texas, so this isn’t necessarily extraordinary, but realistic fiction will take a closer look at this narrative and use it to explore real-world issues, family dynamics, et cetera.
In other words, realistic fiction often makes art out of the everyday, mundane events around us.
3. Contemporary issues
Earlier, we talked about how plenty of genres involve stories that take place in our world and which involve believable events. However, the key thing separating realistic fiction from the rest of it is the subject matter.
While other genres concern themselves with niche parts of the human experience, realistic fiction addresses contemporary issues. Coming-of-age is a pretty common touchstone for realistic fiction–after all, everyone grows up. Realistic fiction might deal with divorce, loss of a loved one, or social issues.
The main thing to keep in mind is that these issues should be relatable to the reader and relevant to the world at the time of its publication. For example, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas addresses ongoing police brutality, drawing on real-life, contemporary examples to make the issues real and impactful for the reader.
How can we apply this to our writing? Well, it sounds simple, but keep the subject matter relatable. We mentioned earlier that realistic fiction makes art of the mundane, and that’s true! It also makes art out of current events and contemporary issues.
What’s a contemporary issue you feel passionate about? What’s a common experience that you want to shed an artistic lens on? To write a compelling realistic fiction novel, you want to find a contemporary experience and put your own unique spin on it.
4. An everyday message
If you’ve got a story that takes place in a believable setting with believable characters set in the real world with no fantasy elements, you’re probably working with realistic fiction. But it’s also important that the story has a message that’s pertinent to everyday people.
This might seem obvious, but think about it–some sci-fi or thriller novels seem to take place in a world just like ours, but at the end, there’s a supernatural twist or a takeaway that’s a little out of this world. Especially in horror, the events are technically grounded in reality, but the takeaway might not be something applicable to day-to-day life.
A book about realistic fiction might have a character learning to cope with mental illness or grieving the loss of a loved one. As I mentioned, it might be coming of age. This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list of the themes realistic fiction deals with, but they all have in common that readers can take those messages and apply it to their own lives.
This doesn’t mean the messages have to be morally good, or that you have to be teaching your reader a valuable, applicable lesson! It just means that if you’re setting out to write realistic fiction and your main character ends up solving their problems in a dream state or using magic or discovering a secret society living underneath a mountain–I don’t know, could be anything–you’re probably working with another genre.
What to avoid in realistic fiction
So, we’ve talked about the elements you need in your realistic fiction book. Now that you’ve got a good idea of what realistic fiction is, let’s talk about what it isn’t so we can really complete our understanding.
First and foremost:
Realistic fiction is not literary fiction… but it’s also the same thing.
You may have heard of ‘literary fiction’ or been forced to read it in school–what is it, exactly? Literary fiction is fiction that attempts to better understand the human condition. Literary fiction sets out to be capital a Art, the kind of stuff people get Pulitzers and National Book Awards for and the kind of thing critics fawn over forever.
In other words, literary fiction has literary merit. But, it’s also often realistic fiction.
The thing is, there’s a ton of debate about what deserves literary merit, what literary merit means, and who awards it. It’s limiting to say that only the books that receive critical acclaim have literary merit, and it’s limiting to imply that genre fiction can’t have literary merit.
If you’re writing a realistic fiction book and you’re wondering whether it’s literary fiction or realistic fiction, the answer is that it depends on who reads it, what they think, and how they interpret it. In other words, don’t worry about it too much. Literary and realistic fiction are often used interchangeably, technically mean different things, and it doesn’t ultimately matter much.
The really, really mundane.
Here’s the thing: your book shouldn’t be boring, regardless of the genre.
Be Mindful of Your Writing Style
Yes, realistic fiction should deal with everyday, relatable issues. It’s the job of the author, however, to transform those issues into an interesting story for the reader. A book about a man who goes to work every day, participates in a totally normal marriage, and dies happy at seventy-six is technically realistic fiction, but it’s not compelling.
In any story, there needs to be stakes. Just because there isn’t a political revolution or a dragon invasion or a zombie apocalypse doesn’t mean we can’t feel those stakes! Maybe your character is about to graduate high school and leave their long-term boyfriend. Maybe they’re in a tragic car accident and lose their sibling or parent.
These things happen to people all the time, and they’re full of conflict and interesting story detail. Make art of the mundane, but don’t make your art mundane!
You might notice that some realistic fiction has a subplot that might be considered genre fiction. The Fault in Our Stars, for example, has a romance subplot, as does most contemporary YA and most coming-of-age. In stories like Turtles all the Way Down, we have a coming-of-age that’s mixed with a murder mystery. Why does that count as realistic fiction?
The reason, simply, is that even with those elements, these stories are still believable stories set in realistic settings with takeaways that are applicable to the reader. The message of Turtles all the Way Down isn’t that Aza is a smart detective–the murder mystery isn’t the core dilemma. Growing up is the core dilemma.
A hard rule, though, is that you absolutely should not have supernatural elements in your realistic fiction story. And if you consider the criteria we’ve discussed, this makes sense. How can a story have a relatable takeaway if the characters solved their problems using magic, or if they had some sort of divine intervention?
Magic, supernatural creatures, fantasy settings, and that sort of thing have their time and place. And if you’re interested in writing about a world like ours with magical elements, maybe you’d be happy writing urban fantasy or supernatural pieces! But it won’t work for realistic fic.
Examples of realistic fiction
One of the best ways we can learn to write anything is to read. So where do we start with examples of realistic fiction?
If you’re interested in YA or books dealing with teen issues, here’s a quick list of some famous books to get you started:
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
If you’re more interested in fiction that deals with more adult issues, here’s a starter pack for that:
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
You know what realistic fiction is, how to write it, and some great examples from a variety of authors to get an idea of how it’s written. You’re ready to go forth and write your own realistic fiction novel!
Do you have any advice on how to make an engaging, interesting realistic fiction story? Do you prefer realistic fiction to genre fic or vice versa?
Strike up a convo in the comments below!