Realism v. Drama

Part of what makes stories so much fun is the drama involved: Will the hero conquer the villain? Will the princess find her true love? Will the puppy make its way home? But, what happens when we find our characters strive more for realism than for drama?

Every story needs some kind of emotional resonance for it to have impact, whether it’s about war or heartbreak or family experience. Sometimes, though, our characters become so much their own people that they end up dictating where their own stories go. I’ve written scenes – necessary ones – for their dramatic effect…but I’ve also had to rewrite other scenes because the characters’ voices had developed so much since my initial plotting that their actions (or reactions) as I’d originally envisioned simply no longer held true to their natures.

What do you do in this situation? Do you let the character take over, possibly sacrificing the drama of the scene? Or, do you follow through with the original idea, possibly sacrificing believability for the character?

It’s okay to play Loosey Goosey in some instances: maybe the hero isn’t in his right mind at the moment and makes a snap judgment against character; maybe the heroine is torn by the conflict facing her and decides on one route over another because her values are confused. Written well, with the associating consequences, those options are totally valid. But, what do you do when your original big conflict becomes significantly less climactic than originally envisioned, because your darned MC has grown up too much over the course of the story?

I’m a big fan of sweeping epics, and last-minute, nerve-wracking climaxes where the audience is led to page after page to see what happens next. But I also believe in, well, believability in a story. The hero shouldn’t overcome the conflict just because the story needs a climax; he should do so because that’s what he has to do, to progress, grow, and change. It may make for less high drama, but it may also make for more realism.

But that’s just my opinion. Which do you prefer: realism or drama?


8 thoughts on “Realism v. Drama

  1. I’m not quite sure. When the characters do deviate from my original idea, I find that it works far better than I had originally planned. It’s almost like the characters know that my idea sucked and they chose to make it better. What’s more, it even stays parallel to what the characters would do, so it keeps in line with their personalities.

    If I do experience what you talked about, I’ll let you know. I haven’t written in a couple of days, and what I have so far are still random ideas I’m messing around with, so I can’t say for certain what I do have.


    • Whew! Good to know, I’m not the only one for whom characters hijacking the plot sometimes works for the better.

      You’ve been doing a lot of writing with your blog, so that does count, even if it’s not fiction.

      Thanks, as always, for commenting, spooney.


  2. Now this is a very good question. If the lead has grown too much to let the drama of the primary conflict interfere, normally I’d say that was his role in the story the entire time. The drama and pushback in the story need not present itself in one massive hammerblow all the time like a good fight or a chance encounter. It becomes a constant in life, it just so happens that the leads have grown and adapted to it.
    Of course, if you are looking to bring it back to the original idea because that scenario is what you envisioned and were working so hard to bring about, then I think it could still work, it just needs a little help. Side characters are wonderful for this, as well as red herrings from back in earlier chapters. All those had to do was make the MC think or remember who they once were, or second-guess where they are now. That’s the great thing about humans.

    So, if this what I think it is for Fearless, I think it’s still very possible to bring back the original dramatic climax. Someone just needs a little push in the wrong direction. Of course, I’m sure you could also think of all new conflicts to craft that fit what the characters have become.


    • Thanks, Shade.

      Like 1MC! did, Fearless has gone through so many changes since its original outline/draft. My protagonists seem to take over a lot, though, so it’s nice to hear it’s not always for naught. 🙂

      Usually, I like to let the characters lead the story – rather than merely service it – but the doubts of whether such stories become publishable (or enjoyed by more than just me) do nag a bit.

      Thanks again!


  3. Great, thought-provoking post. I guess I want a bit of both, where they are most appropriate. I think it also depends on the genre of your story. Fantasy and sci-fi tales are going to be much more dramatic than realistic, and readers will forgive glitches in credibility if the drama makes up for it, I think. Whereas in commercial fiction (which is what I am drawn to, both to write and to read) I want characters to act based on their growth and change as human beings. I don’t want to see them, as you say, overcoming “the conflict just because the story needs a climax.” I think such a moment would be transparent anyway. I certainly have seen it in books that I have read.

    Obviously, to avoid this, the hero/ine needs to evolve over the course of the book, thereby allowing for him/her to overcome the conflict naturally and realistically. It can still be dramatic because of the way we write it, but it will also be credible because the hero/ine has no other choice.


    • Great point about genre, Kate. I should have considered that. Yes, a left-field development is more palatable for me in a fantasy or sci-fi, where that convention is almost expected – some authors are successful at making that a staple in their books.

      I’m in the last part of my draft, and, right now, I really want to see the thing finished, but I will definitely remember this feedback while I’m editing and revising.



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