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The Art of Writing Convincing Verisimilitude


Although you might not be consciously aware of it, verisimilitude is often what distinguishes a good story from one that you just don't care to finish reading. Whether you are just starting to write or you're a seasoned writer, verisimilitude is essential for writing a story that feels true to your readers.

What is verisimilitude?

Verisimilitude is a likeness to the truth, such as the resemblance of a fictitious work to a real event, even if it is a far-fetched one. Verisimilitude ensures that even a fantasy must be rooted in reality, which means that events should be plausible to the extent that readers consider them credible enough to be able to relate them somehow to their experiences of real life. Creating realistic characters rooted in credible circumstances will help readers connect to and empathize with your characters. According to MasterClass, In fiction, verisimilitude serves a higher purpose of conveying emotional truths to your reader in a way that will entertain them, help them through difficult times, make them think differently about the world, or even change their lives.

It is important to note that whether you're writing satire, science fiction, fantasy, or a thriller, verisimilitude provides readers with the feeling of reality, which gives you the freedom to add creative and imaginative elements while still maintaining the reader's trust. Luke Edley of Thanet Writers explains, Verisimilitude isn't about restricting writers to the rigid rules of literary realism. All verisimilitude should do is ensure there is something in your story which a reader can find relatable in some way—a good writer should always make an effort (through a character and their emotions or motivations, the setting and its geography, etc.) to ground their story in just enough credibility that the reader can suspend their sense of disbelief, hopefully to a point approaching enjoyment.

Now that we've established what verisimilitude is and why it is essential for a good story, let's discuss how to achieve verisimilitude in your work. Below are five essential tips to help you perfect the art of writing convincing verisimilitude.

Base your characters on real people

One simple method for achieving verisimilitude is to base your characters on actual people in your life. By doing so, you will create well-rounded characters that jump off the page and feel real to your readers. The people in your life might not even recognize themselves in your characters, but basing a character on your quirky aunt or your obnoxious cousin will help you understand your characters, recognize the differences in how each character speaks and behaves, and acknowledge what sorts of things each character will or won't do.

Creating characteristics based on your loved ones will also make it easier to give your characters distinct and separate voices, which is essential to maintaining verisimilitude. Pay attention to the slight differences in the way people speak; perhaps your best friend uses the word "actually" a little too liberally, or your brother has a tendency to turn every statement into a question. Noticing these patterns in people's speech and incorporating details that are specific to each character will make your dialogue feel genuine and realistic, which will help establish verisimilitude so readers can suspend their disbelief when necessary.

Use familiar, common objects to establish settings

Another way to achieve verisimilitude is to incorporate familiar, everyday objects or places as part of your setting or your characters' surroundings. Consider J.K. Rowling's use of Harry Potter's cupboard under the stairs in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Although it is bizarre and cruel to force a child to live in a cramped broom closet underneath the stairs, Rowling used verisimilitude to transform a standard broom closet with which most readers are familiar. Rowling then expanded on the standard broom closet masterfully so readers could suspend our disbelief and imagine young Harry sleeping in that cramped cupboard.

C.S. Lewis used verisimilitude in a similar way in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe: Lewis grounded readers in reality through the common wardrobe that readers could easily imagine in a room at their parents' or grandparents' houses. After establishing verisimilitude, Lewis transported readers to a fictional world that worked because readers were able to suspend their disbelief.

Appeal to the reader's senses

A third way to achieve verisimilitude is to appeal to the reader's senses as you describe your setting or your characters. Smell can be a powerful way to immerse a reader in your story: To give readers the feeling of reality in a dystopian future, consider describing the putrid, sulfurous smell of a thermal river that your characters encounter. To evoke the feeling of comfort and safety upon arriving at a friend or family member's house, describe the heartwarming smell of spaghetti on the stove mixed with the flowery smells of your grandma's welcoming home.

Similarly, provide readers with familiar descriptive sounds that ring true even if you are describing a situation that could only happen in the world you've created. Consider how you want to make your readers feel, and then brainstorm sounds that make you feel that way. If you want to make the reader feel scared or on edge, consider the unnerving sound of coyotes circling or the distinct sound of someone cocking a shotgun. To convey a tranquil feeling, include the sound of the wind blowing through a bamboo forest or water trickling down a stream.

Include a relatable range of traits and emotions

One common error that inexperienced authors make when creating protagonists is failing to give them relatable faults or preventing them from feeling the uncomfortable emotions that all humans experience. In an effort to make protagonists likeable, some writers fail to give the character flaws or weaknesses. Some writers make a similar mistake with antagonists and portray only an evil, hateful villain, when in reality even the vilest people possess some positive traits. Although the word "verisimilitude" might not arise in your readers' minds, if you create flat, one-dimensional characters, readers will not feel compelled to find out what happens to your characters. As you write, think about the villains in your favorite stories, and try to identify the character traits that made that villain feel real to you.

Perhaps you instinctually want to protect your protagonist from experiencing abandonment or the pain of a broken heart, but such feelings are universal and will make readers feel connected and invested in your protagonist. There isn't much excitement in reading a story if everything always unfolds perfectly for your characters. In real life, people experience challenges and endure struggles, and readers will recognize it as inauthentic if your characters seem to just skate through life. Employing verisimilitude in your characters' struggles will give you the freedom to be more creative in other aspects of your story.

Just as some writers want to protect their protagonists, some writers want to curse their antagonists. No protagonist sails through life without encountering strife, and antagonists do not constantly lose all their battles or end up thwarted at every turn. To achieve verisimilitude, your villain or antagonist has to succeed or "win" sometimes too. Although at first it might be hard to envision your villain succeeding, remind yourself that by giving your villain the upper hand on occasion, you are creating a more engaging story that readers will be eager to continue reading.

Do not contradict yourself or established facts

The integrity of your story and your readers' engagement rests on your ability to follow this last tip. Whether you are writing a fiction story that takes place in the real world in present day or you're weaving a fantasy story that takes place in a world you created, it is jarring to readers if you contradict something the reader knows to be true without explaining the contradiction.

A stark contradiction of reality—even in a fictionalized setting—nearly ruined Delia Owens's Where the Crawdads Sing for me. The story takes place in the coastal marshes of my native North Carolina, yet Owens erroneously has her characters refer to Asheville as if it is the closest major town, when in reality it is at least a six-hour drive. Apparently, Owens was not concerned with the geographical details of North Carolina and assumed that most others wouldn't be either, but every North Carolinian I've talked to about this book mentioned Owens's geographical misunderstanding as something that pulled them out of an otherwise captivating story that required us to suspend our disbelief. Although Owens achieved verisimilitude in her detailed descriptions of North Carolina's marsh wildlife, her geographical mistake made the story feel less real for North Carolinians.

A good editor should catch discrepancies if you contradict yourself in your worldbuilding or if you contradict a commonly accepted aspect of reality, such as Asheville's proximity to the North Carolina coast.

Whether you're just learning about verisimilitude or you've been aware of it for years, I hope these five tips help you write a convincing and engaging story.

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