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What is Realistic Fiction? Characteristics and Style

Contemporary realistic fiction offers a big opportunity - but success might not come easy

By Andrew JohnstonPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
What is Realistic Fiction? Characteristics and Style
Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

I was born to write speculative fiction, but spec editors don't seem to share my readings of fate. After five years of trying to climb SFF mountain - short stories, novels, even nonfiction articles - I accepted my failures and moved on.

Where do you go after you've spent half a decade in the same spot? A coworker had once told me that I should try writing my own story instead of someone else's, and I finally took it to heart. Thus was born The Remnant Pieces, a free online serial that pulled me into the world of realistic fiction.

What is realistic fiction?

"Realistic fiction" is an odd beast, a genre that isn't really a genre. It's a category that is at once straightforward and easy to misunderstand, and working in it requires a different sensibility than other genres, if only because the authors have to make their own rules.

Realistic fiction is a commonly used alternative to the industry term "mainstream realistic." This is a broad catch-all category defined, as the term suggests, by what it's not - neither literary nor speculative. Thus, realistic fiction is the literary sector's miscellaneous category, and can potentially encompass a wide range of stories - from serious family drama to light-hearted character comedy to coming-of-age tales.

Characteristics of realistic fiction

Despite the variety, there are a few common characteristics in realistic fiction. Such stories always have real-world settings, usually contemporary but sometimes set in the recent past or very near future. They lack any of the conventions one would find in the genres. This means no aliens or wizards or overly complex terrorist plots, but also none of the story beats one might find in romance (as some romance writers have told me, there is a difference between a romance novel and a love story-focused mainstream realistic novel). They also tend to feature clear, straightforward prose, in contrast to most literary novels.

Needless to say, the borders around realistic fiction can get very fuzzy depending on what other genres exist. The distinction between realistic fiction and humor, women's fiction or even historical fiction can come down to a subjective judgment call. Nevertheless, if you're writing stories about real life, then you're probably writing in this category.

Writing and marketing realistic fiction

There are both advantages and disadvantages to writing and marketing mainstream realistic fiction, and all of them come down to how broad the category is. There are no specific fans of realistic fiction, which means that unlike a genre work - which will be sold primarily to fans of that genre, by nature a subset of all fiction readers - works of realistic fiction can be sold to everyone. Some of the biggest best-sellers in recent years have been realistic fiction, in no small part because the potential audience is so large.

But this broad audience can also make things difficult, especially if you don't have an audience of your own. Almost all agents (save a few who specialize in spec or juvenile) represent realistic fiction, but no one specializes in it and it can be hard to stand out. If you're looking to promote your works through short fiction, you'll encounter a similar dynamic - lots of markets accept realistic fiction, but good luck finding anyone who specializes in your particular type of work. And there's no real community like you'd find for science fiction, fantasy or romance, and thus there's no way to build your profile over time - you really are swinging for the fences every time.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in realistic fiction is carving out an audience. Yes, your audience is theoretically enormous, but in practice your actual plot will dictate your readers. If you base a story on your own life, then you will attract an audience that looks like you, with a similar background. This can be good or it can be extremely limiting. Because realistic fiction writers don't have a built-in audience like genre writers do, there's a temptation to chase trends and buzzwords, something that has a risk of backfiring.

For the most part, no one opts to write realistic fiction - it's just where you end up after you write something that doesn't have a clear category. If you find that you write in this style, don't worry too much about genre or category. Once you're ready to seek out an audience, you can decide if you want to go with the miscellaneous category or try and find a narrower genre.

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About the Creator

Andrew Johnston

Educator, writer and documentarian based out of central China. Catch the full story at

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