Do you want your fiction realistic, or real?

View of Prague castle and St Vitus Cathedral from Charles BridgeI met my husband in one of the world’s most romantic cities – Prague (Czech Republic, not Oklahoma). We were sitting in a smelly classroom at an English language school. When we introduced ourselves, I arched my brow (which he thought meant I had attitude) and he spoke with a deep voice and British accent. We started falling in love almost immediately.

A love story worth writing a novel about? Meh.

This month, a new line of romance novels (True Vows) is being published based on real-life experiences. Their tagline is “Life romanticized,” and they’re advertising themselves as a new subgenre of romance: Reality-Based Romance.

One of the first books out is Meet Me in Manhattan by Judith Arnold. It tells the story of high school sweethearts who split up and later reunite. You can see a pic of the real couple with Judith Arnold on the publisher’s blog.

I can’t speak about this particular novel, since I haven’t read it, but the blurb doesn’t draw me in. It’s a premise that’s done gazillions of times in romance novels (including the one I’m writing *gulp*), so there has to be something deeper to raise it above cliché. What’s the insurmountable conflict they have to overcome? And I can’t help but feel that the author would be hamstrung by reality. Although she may have some creative license, she can’t exactly make up bigger issues for them to face while remaining true to their story.

Yes, I want the romance novels I read to be realistic. Give me characters I can relate to, not tycoons and stable girls. And yes, loads of people lead fascinating lives that are unbelievable enough to seem fictional.

But I’m really not interested in fictionalized accounts of everyday Joes.

Perhaps it’s just me. Plenty of people love reality TV. And in the UK, there are dozens of popular magazines that pay people for their creepy stories and then write sensationalized articles about them (“I’m a human mermaid!”), but I’d rather shave off my fingertips than touch those mags. Knowing that a novel is based on a true story immediately removes me and my imagination from the story. I feel I have no place in it.

At least one blog has reviewed Meet Me in Manhattan really positively and said, “Knowing that this novel was based on a couple’s real-life experience, I found this book incredibly easy to fall in love with. I immediately began cheering the couple on, and I could not wait to find out if they decided to make their relationship work.”

If these novels are writing people’s stories sympathetically, which I assume they are in order to fit the romance genre and avoid being sued, is it still exploitative? And does the writer have enough freedom to make the couple more interesting? Or does she feel them staring over her shoulder the whole time she writes?

What do you think? How real do you want your fiction? Is this just a gimmick, or will it find a place in the market?

(Photo by me)


  1. Ick…i”m with you. I don’t read a lot of normal romance (abnormal? well, yeah), but the whole point for me is to get lost in a good story with larger-than-life characters. I’m thinking it’s a gimmick. Reality TV caught on because people liked to watch other real people making idiots of themselves. Reality romance? Eh, not so much.

    1. (Abnormal romance – like it.) You’re right about people wanting to see others make an idiot of themselves, a plot line that doesn’t really work for romance. If I’m going to read about real people, I want them to be fascinating – whether for good or bad reasons. True crime (really not my thing, but I can see its appeal), biography, memoir – all these can be great, depending on how incredible the person’s story is and the voice they use to tell the story. But I can’t imagine it working for romance. Plus, I’d feel icky reading the love scenes, like a voyeur.

    1. I’ve never heard of that one, Katie. I can handle completely unrealistic novels (after all, it’s fiction). There has to be a kernel of truth, but…the whole truth and nothing but?

  2. I like my fiction to be … well … fiction. I love the creativity that goes into making my heroes and heroines larger than life, their problems a little outrageous and fun, and their coming together explosive. Real life just does not offer enough of that explosive emotion (unless the couple is extremely demented or high strung) for the story to be captivating enough.

    1. I agree. For me, I want fiction to be something I can relate to, but I don’t want to feel like I’m spending time with the people next door. I like realistic emotional development, which means something can be larger than life if the characters face huge conflicts. Some real people’s lives might offer that, but I’d rather it be called ‘biography’ than a fictionalized version of reality.

  3. Plus, if I can’t stand 30 minutes of reality TV, why would I want to subject myself to 6 – 8 hours of reality reading?

    1. I’m the same with reality TV, Daz, but I’m in the minority on that one. That’s why I was wondering if we’d be in the minority of people who wouldn’t be attracted to true-life novels.

  4. I actually read the first five chapters, and didn’t want to continue. They just weren’t really well written, and the dialogue between the two main characters fell flat, probably because they were bits of real dialogue. Real people actually use the most hackneyed phrases imaginable. And that doesn’t translate well to fiction, especially if you need truly witty repartee.

    1. It’s good to hear from someone who’s given them a try, Imogen. And yes, my wittiest conversations take place in my head, about an hour after the real conversation took place. In reality, I’m more likely to say something idiotic, as are most people, I think. I hope, anyway.

      1. Yeah, a lot of the book (the first 5 chapters anyway) felt a lot like reported speech.

        Speaking of that phenomenon – where you can only work out the wittiest thing to say after the fact – the French actually have a phrase for it.

        L’esprit de l’escalier – staircase wit. Used to describe a riposte to an insult or any witty remark that comes to mind too late to be useful—after one has left the scene of the encounter. Literally, thinking it up after you’re halfway down the stairs.

        Cool, huh!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.