What Is Realistic Fiction?

There are a number of fiction genres, but perhaps the most popular in all contemporary literature is realistic fiction, which is rather an odd name.

These two words that seem to be at odds with one another come together to form something that resonates with innumerable readers across the globe, but what exactly is realistic fiction, and why does it have this power over us?

What Is Realistic Fiction?

Simply put, realistic fiction is defined as an imagined yet realistic narrative set in either our own society/world, or a society/world akin to our own, but that’s just a basic explanation.

While this genre is capable of holding a mirror to society, it’s no mere mime, nor is it necessarily easy to write, and can often take just as much imagination and technical craftsmanship as, say, fantasy novels. So, without further ado, let’s put realistic fiction under the microscope.

Defining Realistic Fiction

The defining characteristic of realistic fiction is the recognizable — These stories play out on the page in such a familiar way that they seem almost prescient, that not only could what’s unfolding in the narrative happen, but that it will or already is happening out there somewhere.

What Part Of Realistic Fiction Needs To Be Recognizable?

In truth, all the fundamental aspects of a story must be on some level recognizable in the real world for it to be considered realistic fiction, which isn’t to say that there isn’t some leeway for creative license, but there must be a thread of the commonplace woven throughout.

Settings In Realistic Fiction


A relatable setting is essential in realistic fiction, as it establishes the foundation for everything else in the story. In light of this, it’s common for writers of realistic fiction to use actual places as the backdrop for their work, but bear in mind, this is by no means essential.

Remember, the defining element of realistic fiction is recognizability, not necessarily carbon copies, meaning you can absolutely make your setting up as long as it shares some features with similar places in the actual world.

For instance, if you’re writing about a place loosely based on an American city, you’ll want to flesh the setting out with realistic artifacts, i.e. grocery stores, angry motorists, schools, street crime, residential zones, and retail areas.

You don’t have to squeeze in as much stuff as you possibly can, as that will lead to long, boring, and clunky writing, but mentioning certain realistic aspects that are integral to the plot, symbolism, or characters is essential.


It’s not a golden rule, but for the most part, realistic fiction is set in either present day or in the recent past.

It could also be set in the near future, but venture too far in your literary time machine and you risk creating a narrative and emotional disconnect with the reader that is so integral to the genre.

That said, when executed with skill, utopian and dystopian stories (often set well into the future) should feel too close for comfort, despite their temporal detachment from our own place in time (If you like dystopian themes, check out the Maze Runner series).

Characters In Realistic Fiction

Much the same rules apply to the characters of realistic fiction as they do to the setting(see also: What Is Speculative Fiction?). They need to be believable inhabitants of the environment in the story.

They don’t have to be like you and I in every way, just someone you could imagine actually existing, with realistic problems, dreams, worries, joys, desires, etc.

What Is Realistic Fiction?

Plot In Realistic Fiction

Typically, the plot of realistic fiction has personal and social leanings. It shows the characters dealing with real life issues, which is one of the reasons this genre is so powerful.

It highlights the majesty and misery playing out in what we perceive as the mundane, and in doing so, defamiliarizes all that has become so habituated as to be unremarkable in our own lives.

In a way, this is what all art aims to do, but good realistic fiction achieves it with a razor edge that cuts to the quick.

Themes interwoven into the plot may include alcoholism and drug use, abuse, losing friends or family members, family in general, growing up, learning about ourselves, learning about others, and so on.

The plot must be threaded together with relatable tensions and obstacles, and if some aspect is beyond the remit of most readers, it must at the very least be a believable turn of events.

Keeping the plot points as close to home as possible facilitates feelings of kinship and understanding between the reader and characters, empathy even, drawing them right into the story as if it were all written in 2nd person.

What’s The Difference Between Realistic Fiction And Historical Fiction?

Truth be told, there are a lot of similarities between realistic fiction and historical fiction, but there’s one fundamental difference that parts them as discrete literary entities… historical documentation.

By definition, historical fiction must be at least loosely based on documented history (If you like historical fiction themes, also check out Malibu Rising).

A lot of the particulars, such as dialogue, character style and mannerisms, and even certain plot points can be completely made up (hence “fiction” in the name), but the core historical facts are spinal to the story.

In realistic fiction, there need be no adherence to documented goings on of the past. It can be all completely made up, and as long as it’s very much embedded in what we understand as reality, it will have the desired impact.

How Does Realistic Fiction Differ From General Fiction?

General fiction is defined as fiction that straddles enough genre lines that it can’t be totally summed up by a single label.

As such, the difference between a work of general and realistic fiction (see also: 12 Best Works Of Hispanic Fiction)could be fantastical elements, distant times, places far detached from what we know, and so on.

You can play it as fast and loose with the truth as you want with general fiction, and you can push dramatization much further too. Realistic fiction, by contrast, is more buttoned-down and locked into the zeitgeist.

Final Thoughts

As you now know, realistic fiction is precisely what it sounds like — Fiction that deals with the “ordinary” in terms of setting, characters, and plot.

Books like The Fault in Our Stars (John Green), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky), and We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver) are all perfect examples of this popular genre.

In terms of pace and structure, realistic fiction can follow the traditional rise and fall of any other genre, but the particulars of these peaks and troughs ring true in the reader’s heart and surroundings!

Sophie Andrea