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Warning: Characters May Appear As They Are or Why I Write Realistic Fiction

by Rita Williams Garcia

Realistic fiction?  Really?  Okay.  I know my stories are realistic, but it wasn’t exactly the plan.  I just wanted to write this one novel about a girl with low self-esteem and a big butt.  Make a million dollars, buy a cabin and write novels.

I’ve been thinking in story and filling up notebooks since I was a girl.  Yet, instead of taking creative writing in college I studied economics and psychology.  Maybe an English lit course here and there.  It wasn’t until I volunteered to tutor four teenage girls who read below grade level that I wrote a draft of what would be my first “realistic” novel for teens.  That was in my senior year.  By then I was also taking master classes with Richard Price (Clockers) and Sonia Pilcer (Teen Angel).  Anyway, I was supposed to use The Diary of Anne Frank, Little Women, and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. with my high school tutees.  Their deadpan expressions and heavy sighs were all I needed to see and hear.

How could I miss the obvious?  Didn’t I also roll my eyes in English lit while Mrs. Dalloway sat on her tuffet fretting over her party dress and flowers?    Didn’t I find my own literary awakening through Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison?  All I had to do was find the right book to awaken my girls.  A book with a character who felt real and familiar.   In my group, the second-youngest girl was a teen mother, another was a girlfriend to a 38-year-old married father, the third had too many younger siblings to care for, and the fourth was plain old bored with school.  The search for the right book was on.

Thank goodness, I didn’t know of or couldn’t find Rosa Guy, Kristen Hunter, Brenda Wilkinson, Joyce Hansen, or Alice Childress.  Thank goodness the local bookstores didn’t carry their titles or any other teen stories with contemporary urban female protagonists.  If not for this invisibility, I would not have had my “Aha!” moment—however misguided—for I believed I had found and solved the problem:  Since that book didn’t exist, I would write it.  

I used my master class exercises to build what I hoped my group would see as an authentic character.  No looking back to the nineteen-fifties or the eighteen-fifties.  I’d set the story in present time (late seventies).  While the main character might be affected by racism, she, like my girls, wouldn’t be active in that particular fight.  I sought to portray an everyday girl in her world.  She would traverse a familiar urban field of land mines laid out to threaten her girlhood.  Her missteps would arise from her needs, her triumphs from her own realizations.  My approach was, like her; don’t like her. Her story was nonetheless valid.

I wrote the scenes in brief skits that worked well for the group.  Each girl took turns playing the protagonist, her mother, and the cat-calling boys and men in her path.  After the readings we had lively discussions and story suggestions for our next readings.  I felt charged by the din of participation.   I planned to retype the skits as a manuscript, sell it for a million dollars, buy my cabin, and finish writing the adult novel from my master class.

After graduation I signed up with a 5th Avenue agent.  When he couldn’t sell the manuscript, I took it back, revised a few things—not much—then flung it back out at every children’s book editor I could find in the Writer’s Market.  They flung it back with comments like, “Too real.”  “Too black.”   “Not a good role model.”  In the interest of full disclosure, there were craft issues as well.

At first I laughed at all of this.  Clearly these people were out of touch.  But in reality, I was out of touch with children’s book writing—its norms, audience, and the language of the trade world.  It would have been helpful had I taken to heart publishers’ guidelines specifying “no realistic teen novels.”  By publishing standards, that was what I had to offer.  Not a story about a girl in her world, but a “realistic” teen novel.  A what? To me, that term had the ring of “realistic for realistic sake” in the same way a novel is now branded “edgy.”  A kind of warning:  “Stand back.  Characters may appear as they are.”  So, the flip side to writing that novel (and the others) wasn’t speculative fiction or fantasy.  It was idealism.  An ideal black character fighting for a just cause.  Not my missteppers taking one wrong turn after another.

Many years ago, a fantasy writer had questioned Gayle’s (Like Sisters) lack of reaction to her abortion.  This was horrific. Why isn’t she crying?   I’m rarely articulate in-the-moment and this was no exception.  Not because the writer had a point, but because he was talking about the ideal world.  His expectations, and not the character’s reality.   Well, I wasn’t writing for his expectations and sensibilities.  I was acknowledging the girl who either knew Gayle or was Gayle.  I knew someone would always write that cautionary tale of the teen mother, but who would stay true to that 14-year-old who couldn’t understand what the fuss (her pregnancies and abortion) was about?  I had seen that unrepentant, unfazed look all too often to ignore it.  My only thought was to get it right so she might recognize herself in a book.  My hope was that she would pause over that character from a safe distance and take a good look. 

Realistic fiction is never about issues but always about character.  Writers of realistic fiction know this because our readers proclaim it in emails and letters.  They “out” themselves during school visits or hang back to ask, “How did you know?”  The story’s plot might have hooked them but their testimonies are always about character.  I know him.  I am him.  I’ve had that girl in my class every other year.   These stories provided visibility and validation to many disenfranchised readers during a time when realistic depictions were limited and discouraged. 

These days I am nostalgic about having written realistic YA fiction.  I no longer feel the same urgency to tell these “real” stories.  In fact, Jumped will be my last realistic YA novel for a long while.  Thirty years after my “Aha!” moment, I now say, “Ah!” as shelves fill up with novels that appeal to not only urban teens, but to teens across all lines.  I used to say, “Tell a story that teens can relate to.”  Now I just say, “Tell a good story and teens will relate to it.”  A good story isn’t hard to find and the writers just keep on coming.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dianne White August 1, 2009 at 9:30 am

Excellent, Rita! I didn’t know your first “writing realistic fiction for teens” was birthed out of a tutoring experience. Such a powerful way to bring reading to students.

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Julie Larios August 5, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I’m crossing my fingers you will do more of your wonderful picture book writing, Rita! Thanks for sharing these thoughts about longer fiction, which I’m still eyeing with trepidation.

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Christy Zatkin August 13, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Your statement that realistic fiction is never about issues but always about character put in words what I’ve known intuitively. Thanks for always being a teacher as well as a writer.

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mia butler January 28, 2014 at 7:35 pm

I’m doing a report on you Rita Williams-Garcia. I will be presenting it at the african-american state museum this is good information.

Thank-You,
Mia Butler

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