Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Workshop Wednesday - Realism in Setting
Let's all face facts: No one lives in a perfect world. Accidents happen. Dirt happens. Vomit happens. Laundry piles up, dentist appointments throw wrenches into things, and everyone has taken a badly-in-need-of-sorting stack of old mail and magazines and shoved it under the bed with the dust bunnies right before the doorbell rings and company walks in. As much as we'd like to think we live in designer homes, wear perfectly posh outfits, sip cucumber water, never miss a workout, and get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, none of this is true. I ask you this: If you're reading a novel, would you rather the main character be more like you? Or be Little Miss Perfect?
I know my answer. And it brings me to today's WW topic: creating a sense of realism in your setting.
Storytelling is all about selling the made-up, packaging it as plausible. Every fictional story, no matter how true-life inspired, is touched with hints of fantasy. We authors are, after all, making it up as we go along. I think you help sell your story - and, more importantly, your characters - when you keep things real and down to earth as much as possible. Even if a character is living out some fantasy of the author, the character's entire existence can't be rose-colored and fantastic in all aspects.
Details I like to remember:
- Most houses aren't perfectly decorated or up-to-date in the style department. Remember those kitchen cabinets just the wrong shade. The loose doorknob. The regrettable linoleum choices made by former owners. Builder-grade materials. Chipped tiles. Ancient AC units. Leaky gutters. Creaking floorboards. The neighbor's dog rooting up the azaleas. Paint scuffs.
- No one's daily life is full of "perfectly lovely" people. There are bullies, and creeps, and friends you love who share too many details about their love lives. Relatives who leave lipstick prints on foreheads. Neighbors you wish you'd built the fence higher to keep away.
- People get tired. People drink more than they should. They stay up too late. Most people don't workout, eat wonderfully, and make 100% healthy decisions on a daily basis. People should be fallible.
The flip side:
- Sometimes, I like to play with the reverse technique. With a character like Delta Brooks, her outward appearance is pretty perfect. But she's eaten up with doubt, worry, fear, and struggles mightily with her interpersonal relationships. That can be fun too.
Sometimes, a well-placed smelly sock can up the level of realism in a story. Don't forget the messy parts. The broken nails. The torn hem. The unraveling sweater. If the devil is in the details, then make those details count, and use them to connect with your audience on a real, down to the street level.