One of the things I struggled with the most as a young writer was trying to balance creating realistic characters with being a good storyteller.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say I was writing a novel where there’s a strange but everyday fact of life for the characters in that world, like, instead of air everyone breathes tomato soup. (Bizarre, but yum.)
Since breathing tomato soup is so ordinary to the people in the novel and they can’t imagine a world in which they don’t breathe tomato soup, it would seem really unrealistic for them to sit around talking about breathing tomato soup. We don’t sit around talking about air and explain to each other how it came to be. So why would the characters explain it?
And it may seem awkward and contrary to the flow of the novel to just come out with the explanation explicitly.
Then you go and end up writing a novel where breathing tomato soup is totally unexplained and the reader is completely frustrated and distracted, thinking, “Why in the WORLD are they breathing tomato soup and why is no one explaining it to me???”
This is what I realized earlier in my writing days:
You are not writing for the people in the world of your novel.
You are writing for the people in OUR world, as in planet Earth, as in a place where we breathe air and need anything different than that explained to us. Always. Always. Always.
No matter where your novel is set, pretend that the narrator has been magically transplanted to Earth and is telling it to us in 2014. They might use their own language to tell it, but they still are giving an Earthling reader in 2014 enough to go on to understand all the eccentricities of their world.
Now, as you are doing that explaining to Earthlings in 2014, this does not mean that two characters should sit around talking about things that would otherwise be ordinary to them. A better approach is to weave exposition in naturally within the context of the narrative and only when the reader needs to know the information because it relates to the plot (I talk a lot more about how to weave in exposition in my guide to writing a novel).
At the end of the day, it’s much more important to tell a good story than to stick too closely to what’s real. I mean, if a reader were solely interested in reality they wouldn’t be reading a novel.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a grilled cheese sandwich.
Art: Camille au Métier by Claude Monet