Sometimes I find my self wondering if the events in my novels are 'realistic enough.' I aware that they don't need to happen in real life, but I want the reader to think: oh yeah, this could happen in real life.

For instance, right now I'm writing a novel where the main character is playing in a rock band. One day, he receives a call form a girl who attended to one of his concerts. She wants to talk with him about one of the songs his band played that day. She believes that the song is referring to the death of her diseased boyfriend (the age, time and location are exactly the same). But as far as the main character knows, the song is completely fictitious (an ex member of the band wrote it). The only difference is that her boyfriend fell accidentally from his balcony while drunk and in the song, the boy commits suicide (she has been suspecting this).

Right now, I have two ways of making sure something is realistic enough: 1) I write about things that had happened to me 2) I make sure that I had heard or read about the thing somewhere.

Well, in the example, the story is totally made up, and I haven't read or heard any story with the same plot (maybe someone has written something similar).

Any other suggestions?

2 Answers 2


For writing fiction, realism is really much less important than believability. Things happen in the real world that are much more improbable than many readers would be willing to accept. Truth is stranger than fiction.

To me, there are four primary elements of believability:

  1. Does the story contradict anything that we know about the universe? This could be scientific, historical, geographical, etc. If you put a lit match in a puddle of gasoline, it will burn. It takes a certain amount of time to drive from point A to point B.

  2. Do the characters behave consistently? This is tougher, because real people don't necessarily appear to behave consistently - but this is often because we don't see what's motivating them. As a writer, it's up to you to understand what's motivating your characters to behave in a particular fashion. If they're doing something that would generally be considered out of character, you may have to give the reader a look at the motivation behind the action.

  3. Dialog. If the characters were real people, is that what they would really say in that situation?

  4. Description - written correctly, it can make people, places and objects feel real to the reader.

Ultimately, believability is the author selling his vision of the story to the reader. It isn't four disjointed elements thrown haphazardly into a pot but the careful blending of those elements into a recipe that tastes good.

  • Yeah, I think that's the word I was looking for: believability.
    – wyc
    Aug 12, 2012 at 15:21
  • 2
    Good answer. I'll add that, for certain genres like crime/thriller, would the character behave like that? Eg, try to solve a crime rather than let the police do it, or walk into a deserted house at night because they saw a light? In both these cases, the character may want to do the above, but they better have a compelling reason why they can't just walk away and let the experts handle it. Aug 13, 2012 at 9:20
  • @Donald.McLean are you THE Don McLean? Bye bye, Miss American Pie, drove my chevy to levy but the levy was dry....them good ol' boys... Aug 14, 2012 at 18:17
  • Oh, no, you're a software engineer. @)$%*@. Nevermind. Aug 14, 2012 at 18:18
  • @Aerovistae I've only been mistaken for him once. One of my daughters went to school with a girl who was his cousin. We called their house about something school related and the caller ID came up "McLean, Donald" - which had them wondering why their cousin was calling. Aug 14, 2012 at 18:24

If you are really concerned about realism, then you need to ask a lot of questions to get enough background to get the details right.

In the example you gave, for instance, find someone in a rock band and ask them questions. Have they ever been contacted by a fan? How did the fan get their phone number/email address? Have they had fans interpret their songs in a personal fashion? What was the fan's reaction when/if the rocker told the fan they were wrong about their interpretation? Even if a band member hasn't had this happen to them personally, they likely will have a better idea than you will of how a realistic scenario would occur.

Additionally, find out details about the cause and treatment of the boyfriend's disease, how often suicidal ideation comes with this disease, and how suicidal people view and react to the world. Maybe talk to a suicide-prevention counselor about what a suicidal mindset is like, for instance. You might also look at average fall heights, how increased blood alcohol can contribute to the fatality of accidents, maybe even what the standard height of a balcony railing is (since these are usually made to be difficult to fall over).

Also, you should do some research about grieving lovers. How does a girlfriend grieve differently than a wife or friend? How is that grief different if the death is a suicide as opposed to an accident?

You obviously don't need to include all of this information in your story, but knowing these things will be the next best thing to writing about things that have happened to you or your friends, or things you read about. You will find it comes out in the little details, and it will make your story more realistic.

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