What Makes a Novel Feel Real?

I read plenty of novels that could be called page-turners. When I read one, I turn pages so rapidly that I only read about half the novel. :-)

I skim novels because they don't feel real to me. For whatever reason (and usually several), I cannot completely enter into the imaginative world of the novel, and so I wind up studying its construction instead of believing it.

I freely admit that I am a picky reader, and studying the craft of novel-writing has made me more so. Many writers have this problem. We've trained so extensively in how to edit our own work and improve our style that any violation of the rules of style can set off our blaring red DISTRACTION alarm. This is not always true, of course. We all know some writers whose style is not great, but who are still fabulous storytellers.

However, I've recently read a couple of novels that kept me up late, turning pages without skipping any at all.

The novels felt real.

One of them was Allison Pittman's For Time and Eternity. In addition to being a fantastic read, I think it's a valuable example of how we can make our novels feel real to most readers, even the picky ones.

1) Employ our style so well that there are no distractions. Allison is an expert here. Her style is clean and elegant. Not once did I stop over a sentence and think: "Oh, the author used some no-no words there (you know the words I mean: 'felt, wondered, thought', adverbs, passive voice, etc.) It's possible that a few of those words may be in there, but if so, they are rare enough that they blend in.) There's no wordiness or clunky phrasing to shove me out of the story and make me remember it's all made up. The rhythm of the sentences is fantastic. Allison Pittman knows that good writing sets up a rhythm so the reader's mind rolls effortlessly across the page, carried along by sentences like a raft over rapids.

2) Write characters who are specific and motivated by their life circumstances. For Time and Eternity features a protagonist, Camilla, who is a teenager when the book opens. She does some things I think every woman will recognize as absolutely true for a girl of that age. Yet her relationship with her mother and father is so well-drawn and so specific that Camilla never even comes close to being a generic teenager. We understand perfectly why Camilla behaves in certain ways because we see the seeds of her decisions in her relationship with her parents. It's clear the author drew her character not from a general idea of 'how a teenager would act' but instead 'how a young person who grew up with this set of life experiences' would react. Character is defined by how we react to events, and our characters become more real when their actions have an eminent logic of their own when seen through that character's POV. This is why we so often find that a "feisty heroine" of a formula novel leaves us cold. It's not enough just to be feisty. We have to see WHY. If I read about a gentlewoman from the mid nineteenth century who happens to be unconventional and smart-mouthed, I had better have some seriously believable, specific reasons to back up those unusual character choices for a woman of her circumstances!

3)Don't get so focused on a slamdunk pace that we leave out the everyday moments, the normalcy that makes the novel feel real. This is a lesson I learned when I began the rewrite of my 1855 novel. Sure, that novel (the first I ever wrote) flew along at a breathless pace and there was never a dull moment. But in my first draft, the action moved so quickly that I did not allow not enough time to delve deeper into my characters' thought lives. Our plots may be exciting and full of action, but it means nothing if the reader doesn't believe the characters are real. For Time and Eternity captures the subtle everyday drama that allows characters to develop and reveal themselves. Tension and pacing often come from a character's bad predicament, which might not be obvious to a casual observer. Not every real-life predicament springs from a burning building or a runaway horse. Readers can find it more interesting to have a church elder show up on a character's doorstep than to watch that character get stuck in quicksand out in the marsh. I'm not saying we should never have burning buildings, but unless we balance those events with the more mundane dramas that fill most of our lives, novels feel fake.

Have you read any novels that felt real lately? Why do you think they felt real?

Next week I'll use another example, Meredith Efken's Lucky Baby, to discuss a few more ways we can make our novels feel so real that readers can't bear to put them down.