Okay, talking about reality in relation to nonfiction writing has a pretty intuitive meaning. But fiction by definition contains parts that have only ever occurred in the imagination. (Note that I didn’t say they haven’t actually happened.) How then can these parts be real? The easy answer is verisimilitude. That is an English teacher word which basically means it feels like real life. So how do I accomplish that? To me, it is about the readers’ ability to relate to the book. I think this starts with the characters.
Good vs. Evil
All right, show of hands. Who knows someone that is absolutely, purely evil? And I am talking EVIL. The kind the intentionally kills kittens because they are cute, and thoroughly enjoys doing it. You don’t know anyone, do you? I didn’t think so. Real people can be annoying, rude, and mean–even intentionally and consistently. In general, I think they do so either out of selfishness or ignorance, or only to specific people or at certain times, not to everyone all of the time. I am not saying that “evil” people do not exist, but they are rare. The same goes on the other extreme of the spectrum. All this being said, why then should I populate a book with only characters who are completely good or completely evil? How can readers relate to that? The heroes need to have their warts, and the villains need to have their redeeming qualities.
As the author, I need to understand all the characters’ motivations. (Note: “I want to take over the world,” is not a motivation in itself, it is a goal. The motivation is “I want to take over the world because…”) The better I know why the characters are doing what they are doing, the better I can flesh them out, and the more real they become.
A similar argument holds for just about any personality traits. The more one-dimensional characters are, the less a reader will care about them. Take, for example, Wile E. Coyote. I could hardly wait to see how things would go awry with his plans. He would end up falling off the cliff, or the boulder would land on him, or the dynamite would explode in his face, and I enjoyed it. Why? Because his character was one thing only: a mouth trying to eat the lovable roadrunner. On the other had, take Ebenezer Scrooge. At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, I think few people would object to an anvil being dropped on his head. But as the story progresses, we get to know him. At the end, I would have been horrified if he had been left to rot in his grave alone. One-sided characters can still be good for entertainment value. But I would not expect a reader to connect with them.
To me, the term character development in a book has two related meanings. First, there is the work that I as an author do to understand who the characters are, and the cues in the book that relate those things (either directly or indirectly) to the readers. Second, there is the change that dynamic characters undergo throughout the course of the book. I think that character development (particularly the second meaning) is the single most important component of the story that is being told in the book. The plot is a vehicle, and the characters drive. Not only with their internal struggles, but also with the interactions between characters.
Ultimately, the goal (at least for me) is for the readers and the characters to be able to connect. I want the readers to say, “I know someone like that.” Perhaps even “That’s me.” I want the readers to feel as if they have found an old friend. And in order for that to happen, the characters have to be real.