Portraying Reality in Your Story

portraying reality pin“Write what you know.”

The infamous adage, while looking good on paper, can be increasingly difficult to use well when put in practice. For writers of speculative fiction, it can look downright ridiculous. After all, when you’re writing a story about a bunch of halflings fighting past legions of orcs and black riders in order to destroy a piece of jewelry—is there even a point of listening to this adage? While the saying may appear maddening and out-of-place at first glance, it may not actually be saying what you think its saying. Fully understanding this adage requires one to first understand what’s real.

What’s really real.

Sure, you can point to the particular geographic oddities of the spinning globe that we call earth, the chance interactions between different sentient beings living on the globe, and the different events that those beings experience, and call all of that real. I wouldn’t disagree with that; there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But leaving our discussion of reality merely at that point tends to miss the greater reality that surrounds the world that we live in.

Loyalty, justice, evil, mercy, suffering. You can’t taste, smell, touch, hear, or see any of these essences per se. But we all know what they are. All of these things are real, and they are real in a much more stable sense than the physical world. We can imagine a world where, say, Greenland didn’t exist, or we had a seventh continent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We can imagine a world where America was colonized by Europeans centuries before Columbus, or the Byzantine Empire wasn’t conquered in 1453.

But to imagine a world without love, or where justice didn’t exist?

That isn’t merely tinkering with a world’s mechanics. That would require changing the nature of who God is in such a world.

The physical world is real, and it’s valuable and important. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating a form of Gnosticism. But there are also distinctive characteristics of mercy, of love, and of righteousness that are the same yesterday, today, and forever. And they are that way because they reflect the unchanging God in Heaven.

What does your experience have to do with a group of rebels fleeing from bounty hunters in the black vacuum of space? A lot more than you might think. You may have no experience fighting against bounty hunters that are threatening the rebel’s existence, or with how technology could allow such a chase to happen in space. But you do know about human nature. You know how people act when they’re angry, how they relate to friends, and how they react to unexpected news. You further know that there’s not one definitive answer for each of the previous three situations; different people handle the same event differently. As a Christian, you know about the transforming nature of love, the rewards of humility, and the joy that only comes through suffering.

“Well, that’s all good,” you might be saying, “but what does it have to do with writing?” Everything. Until you know the true nature of reality, you can’t portray reality accurately in your writing.

One of your foremost goals in writing ought to be to portray reality accurately. I’d venture to say that trying to accomplish this is more important than focusing on the message that you’re trying to get across in your book. Why? Because as Augustine pointed out nearly two millennia ago, all truth is God’s truth. There is no truth about reality that we can discover that runs against who God is and what God has said. Instead, creation declares the glory of God, as Psalm 19 attests.

When we’re trying to portray reality accurately, we can’t help but infuse a message in our story. We can’t help it because God did it first when he made the universe—with all creation testifying to His truth. All of morality points to Christ. And so when we attempt to duplicate that higher reality in our work, we can’t help but bring all the messages with it.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. It’s fairly easy to agree that we ought to attempt to accurately portray reality in our story. But when we sit down and try to write it out, we often come across a problem: we don’t fully understand the higher reality, and thus it’s hard to incorporate it into our story.

The solution? If we’re going to better understand the higher reality, we need to earnestly look at it and examine it if we’re going to try to replicate it in our novels. There are multiple ways to do this, some less obvious than others. Looking to the Bible is, hopefully, a pretty clear choice. The book of Proverbs in particular has a lot to say about what happens to those who indulge in such-and-such behavior. Hatred causes strife. The wise receive blessing. The wicked will be brought to ruin. There are so many themes and stories in Proverbs that are mentioned, one after another, as examples of how God generally deals with man. Many of these themes are already common motifs in fiction writing. And there are so many others that can be developed.

But we shouldn’t merely stop with the Bible. We’ve been placed smack-dab in the middle of the greatest story of all time, written by the Master Storyteller Himself, and it seems like we ought to be taking cues from it. We live in the most multi-layered, complex, exciting plot that could ever be imagined—one that blows all other stories out of the water because of its Author. Do we want to know how this higher reality interacts with man? Look at history. See how they have acted—how God has responded—and how the entire narrative fits together. What should we do in order to portray reality accurately in our story?

Look at who God is—his character, his works, and how he relates to man. Examine what he shows us concerning the nature of the world in the Bible, and then see how these principles unfold themselves throughout history. We’re living in the midst of the greatest narrative ever written.

Write what you know. You know a lot more than you think you do. So study the world that God has gifted us with, learn about His character and about reality, and then, with that knowledge, write it out. Your world may have different continents, different races, different people, different timelines, or it might be pretty identical to the world we live in. But whatever the case, it still is under that fundamental reality. So write what you know.

And know what you write about.

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.

Humans & Hedgehogs

humans hedgehogs pinI am now the bemused owner of a hedgehog.

He belonged to my manager and was the “clinic hedgehog.” But the veterinarian life didn’t suit him well, so he was replaced with two guinea pigs.

His name is Quigley. Cup your hands together and the little ball of prickles fits in there quite well.

Most of the time, he throws a fit when you pet him. He’ll spaz, jerking and making a spluttering hiss — “I’m a dangerous hedgy. Hear me roar.” — hilarious, but not very intimidating.

After five to fifteen minutes of being out of his cage and being handled, he’ll uncurl and start sniffing. Exploring. Let you pet him without exploding into a mammalian version of a puffer fish.

He’ll leave his fuzzy, spine-free legs, face, and underbelly exposed.

Over the short span of time I’ve had Quigley at my house, I’ve realized something: a lot of people are a lot like hedgehogs (and no, I refuse to digress into how John Watson is like a hedgehog and Sherlock Holmes is like an otter. Thanks for those amusing comparisons, Sherlockians.).

Many of us are–or can be–prickly. Not necessarily mean, or on the offense, but we curl inside of ourselves, protecting our soft underbellies and tender hearts with hisses and jerks whenever anyone touches us and tries to get through our defenses.

The same thing is true for book people, because characters—good characters—are mirrors of humanity, encompassing on paper the wants, dreams, failings, victories, and et cetera of real flesh-and-blood people.

I can think of multiple examples from the fiction world of characters who display characteristics of hedgehogs. Lady Mary in the BBC television series, Downton Abbey. Dustfinger from the Inkworld trilogy. Rosa Hubermann from The Book Thief. Frankenstein from the novel Frankenstein. While each of these characters plays a different role, ranging from a grouchy foster mother to an antiheroic ally, they each have something in common: they hide.

Don’t get me wrong—most of us do hide something-or-other.

However, these characters take it to the next level. They pull into their spiny, prickly outsides and hide aspects of their beautifully broken humanness.

What do they hide behind?

Well, what do we hide behind?

Harsh words. Acts of small and large villainy. Sarcasm and stiff aloofness. Pretending to not care, when in fact, concern, worry, and even love exist very strongly inside.

Why? Well, why do we hide? Is it fear of something happening? Personal insecurities? Relationship issues? Simple personality? All are valid reasons, and if you give your character a hedgehog streak, tucking his nice or fearful side beneath a layer of burr-like spikes, please do your readers a favor and find out exactly why.
With that said…

Go pet a hedgehog. It’s a very enlightening experience.