by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I have something that’s so real.

Reality is your friend. That’s the best piece of advice I can give anyone about anything. Really.

Of course, it strikes even me that someone who makes a living distorting reality (i.e., writing fiction) would be so high on reality. Yet, here I am, with my message to other writers about elevating their fiction by keeping it real…

Now, let me take a step back and tell you that I wasn’t sure what this post was going to be about when I came up with this reality idea. (It was really only based on Tara’s brilliant Vogue cover.) Should I talk about the business of publishing, or the craft of writing? Should I talk about balancing life and art, or about using literature to explore life through art? I could see the positives in each of those approaches, and it made it really difficult to get started. So then I thought, maybe I could touch upon a few of these topics? Not all in one post, obviously, but maybe Tara would let me guest blog a few more times?

That’s my plan, at least. Shhh. Don’t tell her.

I’ve decided in this round, I’m going to focus on how we can use the reality of life to create meaningful art. So, to get back to where we started:

Reality is your friend. That’s the best piece of advice I can give anyone about anything. Really. But especially when it comes to writing fiction, reality is your best friend. It’s reality that makes your fiction come to life.

Whenever I’m at a school to talk about writing with kids, I spend a lot of time telling kids that every book is an autobiography. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that in my private moments I am a vampire pig (à la HAMPIRE) or a chicken in pajamas (à la CHICKS RUN WILD). But every book I write is informed by my own reality. In some way or another, I am every one of my main characters. My kids are my main characters, too, sometimes individually or sometimes as a blended product, but there’s always a piece of me. Because, at the end of the day, if the only way to be a successful storyteller is to write what you know, well, is there anyone we know better than ourselves?

The temptation when we start writing is to create something grander, bigger, more than ourselves. After all, my life is fairly boring—barely want to hear about it!—so why would anyone else want to read about my reality? So we start out creating characters that are better than everyone else, smarter, prettier, more talented, more perfect. Their adventures are epic. Their adversaries are the embodiment of evil.

And the result is often—not always, but often—unbelievable. In the “no one would believe this and therefore this story rings false” way.

As much as readers turn to literature to escape, to experience things that they cannot do, the reality is (and, remember, reality is your friend) that no reader likes to read about someone better than him for too long. The main character has to be relatable to keep a reader’s interest. And how do you craft a relatable character?

By making sure he is just a regular guy (who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.) Basically, by keeping him real.

(This is hardly new advice. In fact, I’ve given this advice myself in a different form in my picture book workshops – that you should always make sure your main character is interesting, but well and truly flawed. Because it’s the flaws that keep him real.)

So, how do we use reality to craft fictional characters? Obviously, we can’t just write about ourselves or our kids exactly as we are. (Trust me, I’ve tried that. That’s a little too much reality.) The trick, I’ve found, is to choose interesting traits (perhaps from several different sources) and blend them together to create a new, fictional character grounded in reality.

Here are some examples:

In HAMPIRE, Duck desperately wants a midnight snack, but is worried about running into the dreaded Hampire. The reality: every night, I want a midnight snack, and every night, I am convinced that if I step foot off my bed, the monsters will get me. The fiction: I am not a duck.

In PIRATE PRINCESS (available in May 2012 from HarperCollins), Princess Bea dreams of the pirate life, but when she boards the pirate ship, she realizes she’s awful at deck-swabbing (she has no housekeeping skills), she can’t be their galley cook (no culinary talents), and she is an ineffective lookout in the crow’s nest (she get’s seasick). The reality: I have no housekeeping skills, I have no culinary talents, I get seasick, and I think I’d look dashing in a pirate hat. The fiction: while Princess Bea doesn’t like to dress in silk, brocade, or chintz, and can’t stand the idea of being married to a prince, I love dressing up and look forward to a life with my Prince Charming (yes, Daniel Craig, I’m talking to you!).

In my forthcoming chapter book series, THE SPECTACLES OF DESTINY, the main character, Destiny, discovers she needs glasses. She’s worried about what she will look like (especially about whether they will make her nose look big) and what others will think of her glasses, from her friends on her soccer team to her classmates in the fifth grade. This one is complicated, because I drew from a lot of different sources of reality, so here’s a little chart of some of the sources:

Something about Destiny The inspiration
She wears glasses My daughter Brooklyn and I both wear glasses, and we both initially worried about what other people would think of them.
She’s concerned about the size of her nose. I’m concerned about the massive size of my nose.
She’s in the 5th grade. My daughter Bella is in the 5th grade.
She loves soccer. Bella and Brooklyn both love soccer.
She plays goalie. Brooklyn plays goalie.
She’s super smart. Bella and Brooklyn are both super smart.
She’s afraid of spiders. I’m afraid of spiders.
She’s Indian American. My whole family is Indian American.
She lives in New Jersey, outside Philadelphia. We live in New Jersey, outside Philadelphia.
Her first pair of glasses are dark tortoiseshell. Brooklyn’s first pair of glasses are dark tortoiseshell.
Her second pair of glasses are black with zebra-printed sides. Brooklyn’s new pair of glasses are black with zebra-printed sides.
Her glasses let her see bits of the future clearly. Brooklyn’s glasses let her see the present clearly.

Obviously, I could go on and on with more examples of traits that I drew from my life or from my children’s lives. But you’re getting the idea. Here’s something I would add, though: in every place in the revision process where my editor asked for more detail, the things I added were inevitably true things about someone in my house.

So, one more time, let’s go back to the beginning: reality is your friend.

Do you believe me yet?

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the award-winning author of many, many books for children, including picture books, nonfiction for young readers, and a forthcoming chapter book series called THE SPECTACLES OF DESTINY (due out in 2014). Her picture book QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY was selected for the California Readers 2011 Book Collections for School Libraries. BALLOTS FOR BELVA was named to the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List and received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award in 2008 and FLYING EAGLE was a National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book selection for Students K–12 in 2010. Her science book, NATURE SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS, was named a finalist for the 2011 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. And her books CHICKS RUN WILD (named one of Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2012) and HAMPIRE! (nominated for a Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award) are her personal favorites, and just fabulous.

Sudipta speaks at conferences, educator events, and schools across the country, teaching the craft of writing to children and adults. She lives outside Philadelphia with her three children and an imaginary pony named Penny. Learn more about her and her books at

P.S. If you love Sudipta’s author headshot above, her photographer LifeArt Imaging is currently running a Groupon. Click here!