Joanna Davidson Politano
There’s nothing better than discovering an authentic-feeling novel that makes you experience the settings and truly know the characters.
So how do you create that sense of realism in your own writing?
F Focus on where you’ve been in the story, not where you’re going
It’s tempting to write toward the next plot point that needs to happen, or some phenomenal ending, but be prepared for a stilted, unnatural narrative if you make these your focus. Instead, return to the story you’ve already written and sink back into it, immersing yourself in the story and allowing for a natural progression. Hold those future plot points and fantastic ending ideas loosely—let the story unfold itself rather than forcing it to meet certain important points.
Constantly ask yourself, what would actually happen next? What would my characters really do here? Let yourself go down that path, even if it takes you somewhere you hadn’t planned. Sinking into what you’ve written and letting the existing narrative guide your next words will make the story seem like an organic thing unfolding piece by piece.
2. Experience your characters’ lives
My latest novel is about the Victorian ballet theater. I’ve never lived in Victorian England, nor am I anywhere close to a ballet dancer, but you better believe I bought myself ballet shoes and tried out all the moves. I drove myself and my daughter to live performances and soaked in the environment.
Then I sank into novels that were written during (not about) the Victorian time period. This allowed me to experience the language, the nuances of society, and the feel of the place as much as possible.
I read a lot. I also experienced a lot. I saturated myself in dance and rhythm and theater, in Victorian England and the bustle of London. I wanted to understand what my heroine loved about the beauty and symmetry of ballet, and what that sort of passion feels like.
3. Let your characters breathe
Try not to assign them strict numbers on the enneagram or the 16-point personality profile, because that’s not realistic. No one’s a sold number four or a complete INFJ. We tend toward one type, but there are always invading traits from other categories too, aren’t there? Let your character be wonderfully complex and unique, with natural contradictions and surprising combinations of traits. Let them be human.
Along with this, sink deeper into their point of view as you write. Be in their head and approach every plot turn and character as they might—let the words on the page be in their voice, commenting on things they would notice. You as the author are not the voice—your character, whoever is leading a particular scene—is the one telling the story. Infuse your story with the color of their unique personality and heart and watch it come alive.
Joanna Davidson Politano is the award-winning author of Lady Jayne Disappears, A Rumored Fortune, Finding Lady Enderly, and The Love Note. She loves tales that capture the colorful, exquisite details in ordinary lives and is eager to hear anyone's story. She lives with her husband and their children in a house in the woods near Lake Michigan.