Researching for Realism

Yesterday’s Stephen King quote made me think about a post I wrote in September that probably made any realism writers reading it think I was nuts (or a hack). It was called “Writing Requires Research,” and it was about the minimum research needed to make a story work. My minimum probably sounded ridiculous to them. The best part about minimums, however, is that you can always do more than that.

I think I can honestly say that no author praised for his/her gritty realism stopped at the minimum amount of research I talked about before. In fact, the only way that would even be possible is if the author only wrote about stuff he/she had plenty of personal experience with (jobs he/she had had, places he/she had lived, etc.).

The feeling of realism is all about personal experience, and, like lying, it’s not the author’s personal experience that is most important. As readers, we only consider a description realistic if at least 1 of these options is true:

  1. It matches our personal experiences
  2. It matches what we have heard about

So wouldn’t something based off an author’s personal experience always be both of these?

Not necessarily. For an example, getting wisdom teeth removed is a pretty common experience in the U.S.A. Let’s say that the author had his removed with no trouble. He was awake for the procedure, only needed a little numbing (like getting a cavity filled), and recovered quickly and easily. He thought it was no big deal and never had any fear or anxiety related to the procedure.

That is completely the opposite of what many people went through to get their wisdom teeth taken out. Many people were nervous, were unconscious for the procedure, had a lot of swelling, and were in pain for about a week. So if this author writes about a character getting his wisdom teeth taken out easily and with little pain or nerves, most people aren’t going to find that very believable because it directly contradicts what they have experienced and heard about the procedure.

Basically, if what’s in the story doesn’t match the readers’ experiences or what they’ve heard, then they will dismiss it as unrealistic. Even if it is a true story.

To make readers accept an easy wisdom teeth removal (or anything outside of the norm), the author has to somehow acknowledge that it is outside of the norm. Other characters could react with shock and envy at his good fortune, he could have been told horror stories beforehand, etc. To have an abnormal experience accepted as real, it has to be contrasted with the more common option.

If you want to write extremely realistically, you have to know not only what could happen in that situation but also what usually happens. If you know all of that based on your own life experiences, that’s great. You’re ready to go. But you can’t experience everything.

And that’s why we research. It’s also why the more realistic you want your writing to be, the more research you’ll need to do.


  1. […] I have, and I know others who have, as well. That’s one reason repeated troubles help a story feel real. It’s something we expect from life (except maybe when we’re too young […]

  2. […] realistic fiction, the treatment tends to mirror real life (as it should for the genre and realism), so it’s not as interesting to consider as when the author has free rein to shape the […]

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