A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Realistic Fiction

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. 

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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! 

Supernatural elements 

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!

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How to Write a Character Arc (With a Writing Exercise)

To tell a compelling story, we need a character to see the story through. It doesn’t matter who the character is–the character could even be an animal or an inanimate object–but to get an inside view of a narrative and care about it, we have to have a perspective into the story.

The character the story follows should change by the end of it. This is the character arc.

The degree to which the character changes will vary from genre to genre. For example, romance and literary genres tend to lean very heavily on characters, which usually leads to a more extreme or noticeable change in characters. Whereas adventure stories you might find in sci-fi genres are more plot and world-based, so their character arcs might be less extreme.

No matter your genre, having a compelling character is the easiest way to plug your reader into the story and keep them invested in how it ends, so developing a strong character arc is an important step to writing a strong book.

Let’s take a look at:

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

Fast track your character development in HALF the time.

Keep your characters feeling REAL and organized at the same time with a fully customizable and printable character development worksheet designed to make your characters shine!

What is a Character Arc? 

Like I mentioned, your character should go through some type of change by the end of the story. That journey from how they started to where they ended up is referred to as their arc.

What’s the difference between a character arc and a plot arc?

The arc of your plot is the entire story–the different plot beats from beginning to end. This can include things your character does, so the two arcs will likely intersect. They should, actually!

A character arc is specifically what happens with your character and how that changes them.

For example, the plot arc of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen includes everything that happens with the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy, the Bingley siblings–it begins with a family’s goal to marry off their daughters and ends with (some of) those daughters married. We see proposals, fights, ballroom dances, sickness, travel, etc., and those elements build the story arc, even when they involve characters beyond our hero.

The arc of the main character, Lizzie Bennet, is her journey from thinking she knows everything to having her mind opened to her own prejudices.

Those two arcs interact with each other, but they’re separate arcs on their own as well.

Lizzie’s character arc is an example of the Growth Arc. Let’s look at the different kinds of character arcs.

What are the different types of character arcs?

We can break arcs down into three basic categories: change, growth, and fall.

Change Arc

The change (or transformation arc) is the one you’ll see the most often. It’s very common in the hero’s journey plot structure. This change usually begins with an ordinary or underdog character who ends up saving the world (or their part of the world).

Some classic examples of this arc include Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars.

Growth Arc

A growth arc is similar to the change arc, but less drastic. Typically the character has a particular struggle that they’ve overcome by the end of the story. While they are mostly the same person as they were at the beginning, they have grown in a certain area or overcame a specific problem.

Examples of the growth arc include Lizzie Bennet, as I mentioned above, and Michael from The Good Place.

Fall Arc

You’ve probably heard the phrase “turned to the Dark Side” used in casual conversations that have nothing to do with Star Wars–that’s because Star Wars has one of the most iconic fall arcs in cinema.

Anakin begins his story young and ambitious. His ambition turns into a lust for power, and when he knows Padme will die in childbirth, he confides in the Dark Side. What begins as an innocent attempt to save his wife snowballed into him slipping to the Dark.

Anakin’s transition to Darth Vader is a classic example of the “Fall Arc,” where a character begins in a place of happiness, success, or hope, then ends with either their death or their transformation into something they once opposed.

How to Write a Compelling Character Arc 

Now that we know the different types of character arcs and seen examples, let’s talk about how to write our own. Here are four questions you can ask yourself to begin crafting your character’s arc.

#1 – Who Are They? 

Character arcs are all about the journey from Point A to Point B–so where’s our Point A?

To understand and appreciate the way a character changes, the reader should have a pretty good idea of who they are right at the start of your story. We also need to understand the context for your character, their outlook, and why they are the way that they are within the world of your story. For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel and the world, society, and circumstances are wildly different from real life, a character’s traits that would make sense on present-day Earth could mean wildly different things for a character in a made-up universe. So we should have a strong idea of that character within the story.

We want our characters to be memorable and distinct, especially from other characters in the story. We want an idea of their motivation, background, and goals, but we definitely want a strong sense of their personality right at the beginning.

So make sure to set us up for a compelling character arc by giving your readers a solid picture of the “Before” image.

#2 – What Do They Need (or Want)? 

If a character doesn’t want or need something, they won’t be encouraged to act. Of course, you could have them act regardless, but that will give us a flat character with no believable motivation. What starts the character on this journey? How are they dissatisfied with their current situation? Or are they forced into action by circumstances?

This need or desire is what will drive your character to act, thus propelling the plot arc and the character arc. So develop a strong motivation that makes sense for your character.

#3 – What are the Obstacles?

Once you have a character with a goal, you need to give them obstacles. These obstacles will give you your plot. You should have different types of obstacles for your character to overcome, such as external forces and personal weaknesses.

For example:

A child accidentally throws her frisbee over the neighbor’s fence. Her goal is to retrieve the frisbee. An external force working against her is the fence that is too tall for her to climb. A personal weakness is that she’s very shy and is too scared to knock on the neighbor’s door to ask for it back.

Consider the challenges your character will face due to their environment and their own weaknesses. If you have a full fleshed character, you should be able to think up any scenario and imagine what they would do to fix (or fail to fix) the situation.

#4 How Will They Change?

Knowing who our character is, what they want, and what they’re up against should give us a clear idea of how they need to change to accomplish their goals. What weaknesses do they overcome, and how does that change them?

Elizabeth Bennet went from stubborn and prejudiced to open and understanding. Anakin Skywalker joined the Dark Side. Katniss Everdeen became the face of a revolution.

When you’re mapping out that character change, think about what your story is really about. How does their character arc reflect the morals and themes of your story? How does it complement the story arc?

The way your main character changes is one of the most important elements of a compelling and memorable story. Sometimes the character arc is the plot arc, but they should always be at least somewhat entwined.

Understanding who your character is, what they need or want, and what obstacles are in the way of them accomplishing that goal should give you a clear idea of how that character will change by the time the story is done.

Character Arc Writing Exercise

I’ve got one tip for you before we go–put your character in imaginary scenarios. Of course, most scenarios in a novel are imaginary, but I mean that you can take what you know of your character and drop that person into multiple situations. How do they react? What trips them up?

It’s especially fun to take a fantasy or sci-fi character and put them in a contemporary situation. I have a violent, ticking-time-bomb heiress character in my fantasy novel. How would she react to being cut in line at the grocery store? What would she do if someone catcalled her on the street? How would she cope if she snooped on a partner’s phone and learned they were cheating?

Putting characters in scenarios outside of your book’s world is a fun way to learn things about them that you can apply to your story and fictional universe.

Here are a few suggestions for scenes to drop your characters into:

  • The character is getting a drink after work when a fight starts behind them
  • Their partner dumps them over text
  • They’re nervous about a job interview they’re about to walk into because they know they lied on their resume
  • They’re in the hospital receiving a harrowing prognosis
  • Someone just knocked on their apartment door–it’s a relative they’ve been avoiding for years, and they have…news
  • Write a scene where your character is scared
  • Imagine a scene where your character has to make a decision
  • Write a scene where your character has to break news to someone
  • Think through a scene where your character wakes up in a different body
  • Write a scene where your character apologizes to someone and it goes poorly


This is a great exercise for learning more about your character, spotting their strengths and weaknesses, and figuring out what they really want. You might get some story ideas out of it too!

If you try this exercise, let me know how it went in a comment!

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

Fast track your character development in HALF the time.

Keep your characters feeling REAL and organized at the same time with a fully customizable and printable character development worksheet designed to make your characters shine!