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Symbolism – How To Use Symbols With Confidence In Stories

This article is for writers looking to learn how to use symbolism as a literary device to expand and layer meaning in their stories, by using symbolism in stories.

Symbolism can show hidden meanings and help set tones in the story to help the reader to understand and better connect with your story.

When using symbolism as part of writing your story, a balanced approach is best, so that your reader does not become confused. Symbolism, used well, should continue to advance the story forward.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea of how to find hidden meanings in the art you consume, and you’ll know how to use that hidden meaning in your own work to attract and engage readers. 

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What is symbolism?

A simple definition of symbolism is that symbolism uses people or objects to represent a concept. These objects might be colors, animals, or parts of the setting – like the weather or lighting. 

Symbols are often used to get certain aspects of a story’s mood or tone across to a reader without being too on-the-nose.

Symbolism if often used in story-telling to key the reader into important concepts like death, rebirth, love, or even doom, but the author doesn’t want to spell it out for the reader too plainly. Symbols can be used to impart these concepts to the reader while moving the plot forward.

Symbols can also be used to identify themes and subplots in a story.

Writers might give characters certain symbols which show them at different stages in their journey—following these symbols as a reader will help you understand where the character is in their journey and what sorts of changes they’re going through. 

You can note these symbols on a character development worksheet for fast reference later.

Examples of Symbolism

Most symbols in a story take their roots in universal symbols. First, we’ll talk about some universal symbols and give examples, then we’ll talk about how writers work with those universal symbols in the context of their own stories. 

Universal symbols 

Here are some common universal symbols, broken down by category.

You may notice that some of these have meanings that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other—that’s because one symbol rarely has one agreed-upon meaning. That meaning will often depend on how the symbol presents itself.

For example, the meaning of the color yellow changes depending on the context, and depending on whether it’s a pastel or a vibrant yellow. 

Color symbols 

Black: sophistication, elegance, formality, mourning

White: life, purity, sterility

Red: romance, passion, danger, or lust

Green: prosperity, rebirth, nature 

Yellow: hazard, cowardice, dishonesty, friendship

Brown: groundedness, home, hearth, comfort 

Animal symbols 

Snake: deceit, cunning

Dog: loyalty, friendship

Bear: courage, threats 

Lion: courage, bravery, physical strength 

Flies: decay, rot, death

Raven: prophecy, foreboding

Object symbols 

(A quick note: you’ll notice that object symbols often combine with color symbols.) 

Money: prosperity, wealth

Ladder: ascending, connecting lower and higher concepts like heaven and earth 

Bridge: connectedness, togetherness

Rings/chains: restraint, joining together, commitment

Mirror: one’s own soul, beauty

Bones: death 

Water: life

Symbolism Tip: Water is almost always associated with “life”.

Story-specific symbols 

Writers take symbols like the ones listed above and incorporate them into their own stories when planning out the parts of the story for their book.

Example: The ‘Golden Snitch’ in Harry Potter 

  • ‘Gold’ symbolizes wealth or a prize, and the golden snitch symbolizes enlightenment and victory. 

Example: Night by Elie Wiesel 

  • Throughout this book, the night is used to symbolize death, danger, and doom. Nighttime is dark, and we already associate the darkness with fear and the unknown. 

Example: The green light in The Great Gatsby by Scott F Fitzgerald 

  • The famous green light! We associate green with prosperity and hope, and so does Gatsby. He looks out on the green light and believes he will be reunited with Daisy. However, this dream falls apart. Fitzgerald uses green a lot in this novel to symbolize wealth—notice where it comes up, and what happens to those characters who identify with it the most. 

How to Identify Symbolism in Writing

If you’re completely unfamiliar with symbolism, it might be easiest to start with movies, where directors and screenwriters use visual symbols. Being able to literally see the symbols on screen is super helpful if you’re new to this sort of thing. 

That said, these skills will help you out whether you’re looking for symbols in movies or in your favorite books. 

1. Look for symbolism in the most important scenes 

Go through a movie or book and pick out the most important scenes.

The best spots to find symbols are the introduction or beginning, the inciting incident, the climax, and the resolution. Find the moments with the most dramatic tension and identify the setting, characters, and description

Start by searching for universal symbols. Yes, this means underlining that the curtains in the climax of the novel are blue. It might not mean anything—not every single description is going to have a symbolic meaning, and that’s okay.

Keep an eye out for what symbols pop up at important plot points will help you notice them when they resurface again. 

Speaking of which… 

2. Symbolism is usually found in recurring imagery 

If you have a physical book, highlight every time a specific image or symbol resurfaces. Maybe you notice that one specific setting has water or bones, or specific types of animals always hang around one particular character. 

What sorts of items are associated with different characters? What colors are those items? What happens to those characters, and what happens to those items? Maybe the items change hands, get lost, or take on a new presentation. 

How to use symbolism in your plot

Now that you know how symbolism works and how to spot it, here are a few tips for using symbolism in your own work. 

1. Worry about it on the second draft 

The first and most important tip, for the sake of writing, is to get through your first draft without worrying too much about your symbols. Editing your book can wait.

This is the kind of thing that can get writers tied up in a never-ending first draft, constantly going back to make sure that everything is consistent. 

Write your first draft all the way through, pausing as infrequently as possible.

Then, when you revise, take the time to work on your symbols. Make a sheet of characters, settings, and themes with their associated symbols. 

2. Tie a specific universal meaning to your symbols 

Make sure you keep your symbols consistent across the board.

If green represents money and greed for some characters but life, prosperity, and nature for others, the meaning will get muddled and fall apart.

If rainbows appear in times of sadness, happiness, anger, and excitement, it’s difficult to pin down the significance of that symbol. 

This is where your symbolism planning sheet comes in handy.

Use that list to make sure the symbols you’ve chosen retain their meaning.

The meanings might change and evolve as the characters do, and that’s totally fine! But the meanings shouldn’t change randomly, or out of inconsistency on your part. 

3. Using symbols for foreshadowing 

Symbols are a great way to foreshadow events in your story. After all, the whole point of symbolism is getting across figurative meaning without being too direct.

Stories aren’t fun if the writer is spoon-feeding it to you.

It’s fun to be able to go back and notice that actually, the flies in chapter one signaled that character’s oncoming death. 

If you want to use your symbols to foreshadowing, double-check your symbols when you revise.

Make sure you’ve set that symbol up with that character or theme so that when it reappears later, your reader can recognize it. 

Also, you don’t want to beat your reader over the head with symbolism. Which leads me to… 

How to Avoid Heavy-Handed Symbolism in Your Writing

Say chapter one opens with a horrible storm approaching. A character arrives to the scene in a black car. A flock of ravens descends as he steps out, wearing black from head to toe. A skull and crossbones decorates his bumper. He walks up to our main characters as thunder rumbles, and we’re thinking, oh, gee, I wonder if this guy is going to end up dying or killing someone else. 

This is an example of heavy-handed imagery.

We don’t need all of this to get across a sense of foreboding or doom. We could pick any one of these symbols to suffice on its own. 

It’s also important to be aware of clichés. Sometimes using cliché is helpful, but relying on it to get information across will make the story fall flat.

A dark and stormy night, a black cat crossing a character’s path, a raven squawking in the background, a red-lipped seductress in a little black dress, a sweet little girl in a white dress—these are all cliché images.

If you want to use them, you need to do something with them. 

Maybe the sweet girl in a white dress is actually a murderous villain, or after the black cat crosses a character’s path, that character receives some great news.

In both instances, the writer is aware of the symbol they’re using, but they’re subverting the expectation to make for an interesting, engaging story.

Want to learn more about how and where to use symbolism in your story?

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Outline a Children’s Book – 5 Story Mapping Success Tips

Ready to outline a children’s book?

It might not as simple as you think. Whether you just want to write and publish a children’s book without much care for how it does or if you’re looking to make money with children’s books, you still have to understand this process.

Some folks have made the mistake of making a children’s book author mad, by stating that they would love to write a children’s book someday, since it’s not nearly as hard as writing a real book. 

There’s this idea that since children’s books are, in some ways, simpler than adult fiction, they must be easy to write, and the people who write them must not be particularly talented writers. 

This isn’t true and we’re show why below…

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Learning to write children’s books is a process unto itself, and it’s a skill that needs to be developed just like any other kind of writing. And just like any other kind of writing, it comes with a unique set of challenges. 

For example: outlining. 

Whatever book genre or age group you work with, you’re going to need to at least try to outline your novel

But how can children’s book authors outline theirs? 

The process is similar, but believe it or not, there’s different things children’s book authors need to keep in mind. 

This article will cover some tips and tricks for getting your next children’s book outlined and ready to draft. 

How is a children’s book outline different from a novel? 

This is sort of a trick question. 

The thing is, children’s books are still books—in other words, they’re still stories. 

This means that writers sitting down to outline their children’s books should ultimately be outlining a story in the same way that someone writing adult fiction would. 

Here’s where things differ: in children’s books, the story is much shorter, much more streamlined, and generally contains some kind of message or allegory. The allegory isn’t a requirement for children’s literature, but it’s pretty common. 

What does this mean?

Instead of mapping out countless subplots and fleshing out endless backstory, you’re going to want to keep things short, tight, and super focused on the core components of a story. If you’re writing a children’s book series, it’s even more important to dial in this process so you can outline all of them at once, before starting to write.

What is the basic structure of a children’s book?

Before we get into teaching you how to outline your children’s book, we should cover basic structure.

Like a book has a front and back cover that structure the book (telling you where the book begins and the book ends), it’s important to cover what should be included, before diving into the steps to outline your children’s book.

The basic structure of a children’s book shouldn’t differentiate too much from an adult fiction book. Stories are stories, and all of our stories have a core structure. 

However, you’ll want to really zero in on these core components when writing a children’s book. 

You don’t have a lot of space, so everything needs to be clear, concise, and intentional—there’s not as much room for meandering between acts as there might be in adult fiction, where readers are willing to sit down for three hundred pages and hear you out. 

Let’s go over the basic structure of a children’s book. These pieces will be the bones of your outline. 

Side note: if you’re writing middle grade fiction, you’ve got a little more room to work with things like romantic subplots and side characters. Your outline might not need to look quite as bare-bones as this, and may look a little more like a young adult outline.

When thinking about how to outline your children’s book, remember, your children’s book will have four basic components:

  • Beginning
  • Middle
  • Climax
  • Ending

Let’s get started.

1. Beginning of story

The beginning of your story should introduce the characters, themes, setting of the story, and conflict. We should have a clear sense of the world the characters live in, the rules for the universe, and who our main cast of characters are. 

When starting the outline for your book, remember to start the action sooner rather than later. Many children’s books begin the action as soon as your open the story – typically on page one or page two.

There may be some characters our main cast encounters on their journey, and it’s fine to introduce those in the middle, where the bulk of the story takes place. But all of our main characters should be introduced in the beginning. 

This introduction should be clear in a children’s book. It should be obvious where the story is taking place and what that setting looks like, and it should be stated very clearly who we’ll be following throughout the narrative.

It should also be very clear what sorts of conflict the characters will need to grapple with—is it an internal conflict, like the need to acquire more cookies, or is it an external conflict, like the need to take down a bad guy threatening the village? 

2. Middle of story

This is, for all intents and purposes, your second act. Most of the story will be in the middle. The characters should grapple with the conflict introduced in the first part of the story, and they should work to overcome different challenges in order to meet their goal. 

If you’re writing allegory, ask yourself what sorts of challenges represent their real-world equivalents. 

For example: in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, an enormous toxic self-help ox represents the sort of selfish and aggressive self-help advice that can ruin people’s friendships.

A character following that advice has to grapple with having become too aggressive. 

The obstacles in the middle of the story should tie to your theme, and they should work toward solving the central conflict. 

Don’t be afraid to introduce fun new characters for your main cast to interact with or new settings for your characters to travel through! Just keep it all as simple and easy to follow as possible, so it’s not confusing. 

It should always be crystal-clear why characters are doing what they’re doing. 

3. Story climax

Just like in adult fiction, this is your big hurrah. This is where your characters overcome that central conflict you’ve been building up to the entire time—the monster is defeated, the mouse finds his way home at long last, et cetera. 

Pay special attention to the climax section of your story as you begin to outline a children’s book.

The climax should be a very clear resolution of the conflict introduced in the first part of the story. If you set up an evil groundskeeper, for example, the conflict should involve our characters handling him, and the way they handle him should speak to the message and themes of the book.

Do your characters throw him into a pit? Do they realize he’s just misunderstood and befriend him? 

The way your characters handle the climax should be a culmination of their character arc

For example, a shy character might finally work up the nerve to stand up to her bully, or an aggressive character might learn to be soft and kind to her friends. Not to sound like a broken record, but again, this should be a very clear culmination from the character we met back in the beginning. 

4. Ending and Wrap Up

The ending of your children’s book is going to be the most important part in terms of theme. The ending should immediately follow the climax—the princess marries the prince, and they live happily ever after! 

The way the book ends tells us the overall message and ties up the theme. If the characters defeated the groundskeeper with violence and they’re all celebrating, we’ve learned that violence was an acceptable and understandable way to handle this conflict.

If the characters gather around and vow to stay best friends forever despite the events of the story, we learn that friendship can endure even the toughest hardships. 

A note on morals: while adult fiction tends to question our morality and offer tons of grey space for our principles, children’s fiction tends to be simpler.

This isn’t to say that children’s literature can’t grapple with intense issues, like grief or social injustice issues like racism, and it isn’t to say that children’s literature can’t grapple with those issues with nuance and understanding. 

What I mean here is that children need a simple, clear message that ends the story on a satisfying note. This means that whatever your message is, it shouldn’t be difficult to pick apart. 

How to Outline a Children’s Book With Ease & Impact

Now we know what the basic structure for a children’s book looks like, which means we’re ready to get started! Here are a few tips and tricks to use to make sure your children’s book outline is as good as it can be: 

1. Identify Your Theme 

Before you get started on your plot, identify your theme, especially if you’re setting out to write an allegory. 

What problem are the characters going to solve? What does that problem represent—does it have an analogy to real-world conflict, and if it does, what is that real-world conflict? 

For example: a cruel and vicious groundskeeper might represent a mean parent or an unjust government leader.

These analogies should be kept in terms that children understand and relate to, so it’s best to stick with issues children face. Parental struggles, friendship problems, school problems, etc.

Children also deal with things like grief and trauma, so if you’re writing about something like that, just make sure you’re keeping the child’s perspective in mind as you outline a children’s book. 

2. Know Your Characters 

In a children’s book, it’s especially important to have recognizable, memorable characters. Make sure you have only as many characters as you need to tell the story, since a story with too many characters can get confusing. 

It’s also important to make sure these characters are distinct and motivated. If your book is illustrated, making them visually distinct will be a huge help.

Otherwise, make sure the character’s names don’t look the same (Sarah and Sandra might be a little confusing), and make sure each character has their own strong characterization and motivation. 

It can also be helpful to give characters a unique trait or quirk, like a hairstyle, special power, or catchphrase.

These can get gimmicky, so don’t rely on them for characterization, but if your genre calls for it, play around with it! The ponies in My Little Pony, for example, all have distinct colors, styles, and special powers. 

3. Find Your Conflict 

Once you’ve got your theme and your characters, you’re ready to identify your conflict. 

The conflict should arise naturally from the distinct characters you’ve created and the setting you’ve put them in—if the characters and setting all totally gel with each other and there’s no tension or potential for tension between them, you might want to rework it. 

If your story is going to involve some external conflict, like an alien invasion, you should still have some internal conflict for your character to work through. Maybe your character needs to learn to be brave, for example.

Identify these and keep it in mind for your climax. 

4. Map Out Your Plot Points 

Now that you’ve got all that, it’s time to hit up the basic structure we talked about earlier. 

Go through and map out your beginning, middle, climax, and end. If you’ve only got one of those pieces in mind right now, that’s fine! Write it down and fill in the rest as it comes to you. 

If you’re working with an illustrator, it might be helpful to use a storyboard format to outline. 

Even just sketching some stick figures or describing what you want to go on in the scene can be helpful. 

For tips on this, try looking at movie directors’ and comic book writers’ storyboards for inspiration. 

5. Plan for Variety 

Finally, you should plan a few different endings for your story. Children’s books are short, and you might need to play around with different versions of the story. Maybe in one version, the climax goes differently, or the ending has a more serious or less serious note. 

You don’t have to go crazy, necessarily, but having these alternate versions readily available will be helpful when it comes to getting feedback. 

This way, you can ask your readers which versions they prefer and why, and if you need to head back to the drawing board, you won’t be left with absolutely nothing.

Step-By-Step Process to Outline (and Write) Your Children’s Book

So, how do you outline a children’s book?

Well, the first step is to identify your theme. This will help set up what your story is about and give it direction.

Next, know your characters–this includes their goals and motivations as well as any major conflicts they might be facing.

Then, come up with plot points that illustrate how these different aspects of the story play out over time.

Finally, plan for variety by having subplots or side stories that tie into but don’t overshadow the primary storyline in order to keep readers engaged throughout the entire process!

If this sounds like something you’d enjoy trying yourself, register below for our free online class on writing children’s books where we’ll cover all of this and more!

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Writing an Antagonist: Who They Are and How They Work

Everyone knows that all stories need a hero. But we often overlook that stories need an antagonist, too. 

Think about it like this: every story needs conflict. A story’s not interesting if the hero gets everything they want without any resistance–we need tension, drama, stakes, and compelling characters to keep us invested the whole way through and make the hero’s victory worthwhile. These are the building blocks to writing a great novel.

Enter: antagonists. 

We’re here to talk about the opposition today! We’ll figure out what they are, how they function in stories, and give you some examples of antagonists you may have seen before. We’ll even get into some common misconceptions about them, so if you think you already know everything there is to know about them, stay tuned! 

writing an antagonist cover image

What is the best definition of Antagonist? 

An antagonist is a character opposing the protagonist. They’re the character presenting obstacles or challenges that keep the hero or main character from getting what they want. It’s really that simple! An antagonist doesn’t have to be the main villain of a story–there are usually more than one antagonists in any given story. 

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What is the role of the Antagonist? 

Your protagonist has their goal, whether it’s to get together with their significant other, save the world, or overthrow the government. Your anti-hero’s goal is simple: stop the protagonist from getting what they want. 

An antagonist might stop them in a million different ways, and it all depends on the story. In a romance, maybe the antagonist is a bitter ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to see his ex-girlfriend happy, so he keeps trying to sabotage her new relationship. In a fantasy story, they could be an evil warlock bent on destroying humans for good. 

Like we mentioned earlier, the role isn’t always necessarily the main villain. Your main villain is almost certainly going to be an antagonist–if they aren’t doing anything to trouble your heroes, then they’re probably not a great villain–but anyone who gets in the protagonist’s way is technically an antagonist. 

Is the Antagonist the bad guy? 

So, when we were talking about villains, I listed some examples of antagonists doing some morally bad things. This is pretty typical–heroes are generally good guys, so a bad guy is usually going to be the one to get in their way. 

But this isn’t a hard rule. This character doesn’t have to be evil in a moral sense! If your protagonist is a villainous character who does awful things and the antagonist is trying to stop them, they’re still the antagonist–they’re just morally good or lawful. 

The thing to keep in mind is that bad and good are moral terms that describe the moral value of someone’s actions. The bad guys want to blow up New York, so the Avengers save the day. Dr. Doofenshmirtz wants to blow up the Tri-State area, so Perry stops him. Perry wants to keep the Tri-State area safe, and every single day of his life, Dr. Doofenshmirtz is one heck of an obstacle. 

But maybe there’s the Grinch looking to destroy Christmas. That’s not a super cool thing to do, and the audience knows it, but the Grinch is still our protagonist. We don’t want him to succeed, really, and we’re not rooting for him to rip up that Whoville fun–he’s our protagonist, but he’s not a good guy. Similarly, the Whos down in Whoville are impeding him, so they’re antagonists. They aren’t bad guys, but they are antagonists. 

What is an example of an Antagonist? 

We’ve defined character traits and explained what their role is in a given story–now it’s time to look at some examples! 

Disney Antagonist Examples

Lord Farquaad and Monsieur Hood from Shrek 

Shrek’s goal, from the get-go, is pretty simple and pretty obvious. He wants to be left alone in his swamp to hang out and be gross, and when a bunch of fairytale creatures show up on his land, this becomes impossible. 

It’s true that the fairytale creatures being there prevent him from achieving his goal, but they were sent there by Lord Farquaad–they didn’t come on their own accord. Lord Farquaad is the one kicking them off their own land, refusing to cooperate, and ripping the legs off gingerbread men–he’s the antagonist, not the creatures. He’s also the main antagonist, because he drives the central conflict of the film. 

We also have Monsieur Hood, who’s basically Robin Hood, and who wants to do some highway robbery while Shrek and the gang are coming back from their quest. Monsieur Hood is an antagonist, because he’s literally standing in the way of what our protagonists want. However, he’s not the main antagonist. 

Mother Gothel and the Stabbington Brothers from Tangled 

Disney is famous for its villains for good reason–they’re consistently well-branded and reveling in their misconduct, and it’s a blast to watch. Mother Gothel is no exception! 

Rapunzel wants to leave the tower, explore the world, and figure out who she is. Mother Gothel wants to keep Rapunzel in the tower, prevent her from exploring the world, and keep Rapunzel’s identity a secret. She spends most of the movie trying to hunt Rapunzel down and recapture her. She’s our main antagonist. 

We also have the Stabbington brothers, our secondary antagonists. They want revenge on Flynn for stealing the crown, and they join up with Mother Gothel to achieve this goal. 

Sauron, Orcs, Sarumon, Smeagol from Lord of the Rings 

Naming every character that could fit into this definition in Lord of the Rings would probably take a minute–Lord of the Rings is an enormous series with a half a billion characters. However, it’s a great chance to pick apart some antagonists and differentiate between main, secondary, and miscellaneous. 

Our main antagonist is Sauron. Defeating Sauron is our central goal–he’s doing the most to destroy our protagonists’ hopes and dreams and worlds. We also have Sarumon and Smeagol, secondary antagonists who work to prevent the protagonists from getting that one true ring to Mordor. 

We also have a sea of orcs. These guys are also opposite the protagonist, since they’re working to prevent our characters from defeating evil, which is their goal. 

Again, they’re not categorized as bad guys because they’re fighting for evil–our protagonists just happen to be fighting against that evil. 

Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender 

Zuko’s one of the best antagonists ever! Let’s talk about why. 

At the start of the story, his entire purpose is to capture the Avatar. The Avatar is our main protagonist, so this makes Zuko an antagonist. It’s pretty cut and dry for a while… and suddenly, the tables turn. 

Zuko changes his villainous ways, denounces his evil father, and switches sides in the third season. He joins the Gaang, and at this point, he stops opposing the protagonist. He’s no longer preventing Aang from achieving his goals–he’s helping him, which means he’s now a protagonist. 

Firelord Ozai from Avatar: the Last Airbender 

Unlike Zuko, Firelord Ozai sticks to being an opp the entire time. He’s driving the main conflict–his desire to take over and destroy the entire world is exactly what Aang spends the entire show training to prevent. 

Zuko provides an additional challenge, because he’s also trying to capture Aang, but he isn’t the one trying to take over the world. He just wants to get back on his dad’s good side. Ozai, on the other hand, is pretty hell-bent on world domination. 

More Antagonist Examples

Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman 

You might think antagonists don’t exist in literary fiction, but you’d be wrong! Antagonists get more complicated when it comes to more character-driven work. It kind of takes the nuance out of your complex coming-of-age narrative if you’ve got a cloaked villain stroking his beard in the background. 

Willy Loman is a great example of a protagonist who’s also an antagonist. He wants to fulfill the American Dream through his role as a salesman, but he’s also delusional. He’s insecure, he’s volatile, and throughout the entire play, he is his own worst enemy. He prevents himself from achieving his goals, and the drama from the play comes from watching him implode. The American Dream isn’t stable, and neither is Loman. 

In literary fiction, antagonists are usually kind of complicated. You’ll have the protagonist be their own antagonist, or have the antagonist be a misunderstood family member–when in doubt, ask yourself who it is that’s preventing the protagonist from achieving their goals. In Death of a Salesman, it’s Willy Loman. 

The School and Erasers from Maximum Ride 

Maximum Ride’s a book series about bird kids who escape their lab and wreak havoc on America, all the while struggling with their weird existence as bird kids. The lab is known as The School, and that’s our main evil force opposing the bird kids. 

The School constantly pursues the kids in an attempt to recapture them for further scientific tinkering. This creates the main problem the kids face throughout the series: they want their freedom, and the School wants them captured. These guys are our main antagonists. 

We also have Erasers, the goons The School sends to recapture or kill the kids. Erasers aren’t the ones creating that main conflict, but they are definitely posing a problem–these are secondary antagonists. 

Hades and the Minotaur from The Lightning Thief 

Hades stole a lightning bolt from Zeus, and Percy has to go get it back. Hades is our main antagonist in the Lightning Thief! You may have heard Greek Mythology buffs complain about how this series makes Hades into something of a villain, since in traditional Greek mythology, he’s really just hanging out. 

But, one more time: Hades isn’t an the main opposition in this story because he’s evil. He fits the trait because he’s got, and wants to keep, the thing Percy, our protagonist, needs to succeed in his quest. 

The Lightning Thief and the Heroes of Olympus series is full of fun secondary antagonists, but for an easy example, let’s consider the Minotaur. When Percy’s trying to get into Camp Half-Blood, the Minotaur is literally physically in his way, preventing him from achieving this goal. Bam, antagonist. 

Cersei from Game of Thrones 

Remember when I said that literary fiction can create some complicated antagonists? So can any genre, if the author plays their cards right. Cersei’s pretty obviously a villain in Game of Thrones–right? 

Well, it’s complicated. Game of Thrones is told from many characters’ points of view, and almost every character wants to end up on the Iron Throne, Cersei included. She prevents many of our more likeable characters from being on the throne and does a ton of awful stuff to prevent them from even getting close, which does make her an public enemy number 1. 

However, from her own point of view, she’s a protagonist. People like Margaery Tyrell and Ned Stark become antagonists, preventing her from keeping the throne. 

She’s definitely an anti-hero, but she’s also kind of a protagonist, which makes for a fun, complicated reading experience. 

Who is your favorite TV, movie, or book antagonist? Let us know in the comments below!

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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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