Writing Real Life Authenticity: Where do you draw the line?

When can you write like ‘real life’ and when do you take the ‘real life’ out of books?

I preach authenticity in writing fiction, but sometimes things that are too ‘real life’ are not right for books. Here’s what I mean:

  • Teen speak. Teens have a specific way of talking and interacting with each other, however this does not always translate smoothly to fiction. Know what authenticity to include: diction, habits, friendships etc. And know what authenticity not to include: pop culture references that will date the novel, slang that won’t translate across all reading audiences etc.
  • POVs. Use alternate POVs to better inform the reader in new perspectives, not repeat the situation from all angles.
  • Coincidence vs. Serendipity. There is a fine line between the two and I’ve touched on it before. Know which happens only in real life, which can be fabricated for fiction and when to avoid the two all together.
  • Timing. Timing in books is nothing like real life. Novels need planned and plotted pace, while life moves at its own speed. Never mix these two up. Real life pacing makes for a disastrous novel (read: boring and forgettable) and you can never expect what happens in books to happen to you!
  • Characters. All characters in a novel have a purpose for being there. If you introduce a character with no idea why or where they are headed that’s a problem. In real life you come across all types of people that come in and out of your life. Not so in fiction. Even if they are minor characters they should be as 3D as if they were real. Even if the character doesn’t advance plot do they reveal something about another character? Use characters with purpose.
  • Setting. Each writer has their own relationship with describing setting. Are you someone that notices the crown moldings on a brownstone? Or are you someone that whizzes through life without reflection on place? Let setting be natural to characters and purposeful. We’ve all had enough pathetic fallacy.
  • High stakes. In fiction the stakes must be high and they must be manufactured. It is not often in real life you are presented with the stakes that characters are in novels. This is a significant difference between novels that understand the borders of authenticity. Will the character lose their job if they go for the new job interview not knowing if they’ll get it? Can the character go on a date with a new guy taking a chance on love when they have an unhealthy, but steady relationship with someone else? What will/can the character lose as the plot moves along? (See this blog post for more.)

Fiction is a made up world, but there are real life tropes that must string the book along for the reader to feel like they are reading something worthwhile instead of an invention of what a writer *thinks* real life is like when you write it. The best fiction is a reflection of a world that we can relate to, one that is projected onto our psyche. It is an imaginary world that we are to believe can/could be real. If it strays too far from reality readers cannot invest in the authenticity that characters could be real people, setting could be real places and situations could actually occur.

The obvious rebuttal to my argument is science fiction, however, you’ll notice many science fictions plays on the speculation that haunts us: that the robots could come to life, that a virus could wipe out our population, that our government could be overturned, that there are other, smarter beings in the seams of the universe. This is authentic in its own way.

Each genre and branch of literary fiction has its own traditions of authenticity to follow. So learn the boundaries and limitations of authentic writing and when to let fiction be just that, fiction. Your book should be a creation from your imagination that draws on the web and balance of emotions that move all plots: love, tragedy, revenge, birth, death, pride, family, ambition—the high stakes that draw readers to meaningful fiction.

The balance between what is real (ie. feeling an experience through the character) and what is not real (ie. fabricating pace) are two examples of the difference between writers that understand authenticity and writers who don’t.

Q: What are some of your examples of fiction blurring the lines of authenticity?

Image via WitandDelight.tumblr.com

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

4 thoughts on “Writing Real Life Authenticity: Where do you draw the line?

  1. It always bugs me when people complain about the fact that the main characters in YA fiction never seem to have ‘real’ parents. The parents are either gone, or neglectful, or clueless, etc. Yes, that is true for the most part, and no, it isn’t ‘real life’ for most teens, but I think there is a reason for it. Teens don’t want to read books about kids with parents constantly interfering, because for them that’s real life. They want to read about independent teens who handle their own problems and don’t have Mom or Dad constantly looking over their shoulder.

    It may not be true to life, but sometimes–for me, anyway–that is the point.


    1. That’s a really common one! Good one, Jen. In the YA queries I have read for the past couple years it has been one of a few scenarios: 1) parents drop kids off for the summer at their kooky aunt’s for a summer of magic 2) parents died 3) a combination of 1 and 2.

      Another common YA and adults trope is the kids are knowledgeable about what’s going on but the parents are kept out of the loop so the kids can solve/overcome without their help.


  2. I always wonder if some writers follow these types of rules instinctively, without even thinking about it – maybe that ability makes certain individuals better at the “craft” than others (or at least less of the tortured artist stereotype)?

    Re: Straying too far and authenticity: Authors who use Magical Realism, like Gabriel García Márquez in 100 Years of Solitude or Alice Hoffman in The River King, are particularly impressive because they walk the line between realistic fiction and sci-fi, and do it convincingly. Not an easy feat, I’d imagine…


    1. You bring up some great points!

      I think you’re right re: some writers follow these concepts instinctively. There are some parts of the craft that are natural and some that are taught.

      Walking the literary/sci-fi line is very hard to do. What hooks readers isn’t the speculative science of it, but the emotional reaction of the characters to these situations. Good examples!


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