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Thoughts on How to Write Authentic Characters

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

It's been awhile since I've done any blog posts. It feels like there is time to write the novels or there is time to write about the novels -- never both. Right now, though, I am editing, and as I am re-reading, I often come across little passages which make me go Oooooh yeah.

Like this one:

Colleen looked at Drew with a smile. She was reminded why she was so thankful to have him in their lives, to have him committed to always being in their lives. She slipped her arm around his waist, and in return he draped his arm around her shoulders. Mark watched the two of them then shook his head.

“I can’t believe you’re banging my sister,” Mark said. “I should take you outside and teach you some respect.”

“Every chance I get,” Drew said, smile flashing. “And anytime. You are welcome to try.” Then he grinned at the man who would soon be his brother-in-law, knowing full-well that Mark was happy to have him joining the family.

Colleen snorted at what she considered to be male idiocy. “Come on,” she said, “Let’s grab your luggage and get out of here.”

To me, there are two parts of this short passage from my upcoming The Best of Things (book 3 in the Lakeland Series -- launching July 2020) that make it feel real. They are both actions. The first is, "She slipped her arm around his waist, and in return he draped his arm around her shoulders." The second is, "Colleen snorted at what she considered to be male idiocy."

The first sentence feels authentic to me because it reflects my own experiences of being in a comfortable, solid relationship. People touch each other familiarly, easily, without thought. It's like muscle memory -- just how we are together. In this scene, Colleen is picking up Mark and Drew at the airport. They are reuniting. In real life, my dad was a 737 Captain. I was part of this scene countless times in my childhood. The welcome Colleen gives Drew feels real to me because I've seen my own parent act it out. This suggests a couple different things to me when it comes to creating authentic characters.

First, the simplest writing can be the most profound. There is nothing complex about Colleen's and Drew's actions here. There are no big words involved in the writing. Her action is stripped down and basic, and, key to the scene, it is reciprocated. If Colleen had picked Drew up at the airport and put her arm around him but he had stood, stiff and unresponsive, not reciprocating, the effect would be to suggest something quite different. Either, things are not good between them, or the action is inauthentic to the characters / relationship. To make a character seem real, you don't have to think up fantastical reactions, you do have to keep their actions appropriate to situation and person at all times.

As well, it seems obvious to me that no one will write authentic people without observing and studying people. How do people act in certain circumstances? How would I act? How would a different personality act in ways I would never consider? How does mood affect action? Race, gender, culture, age, geography... Also, how does the human body move? I ask myself this a lot in romantic scenes. When you kiss someone, for example, what physical moves do you actually have to make? Do you pucker your lips? Do your eyes widen -- close? Do you stand on tiptoes or bend your back or angle your chin and neck? Where do your hands go?

As well, how do others react to the action around them -- both in real and in fictitious circumstances? If Colleen had put her arm around Drew and Mark had stared, or shuddered, or some other negative response, would it feel so right for her to touch Drew so simply? Readers to an extent take their cues from the reactions of the secondary characters in the novel. How do we know someone is beautiful? The foil told us so. How do we know this is the smartest detective ever? Well, first, they solve the case. But also, the people around him treat him as if he is smart. Their expectation becomes our own.

In the second sentence, the language of the writing is what sells Colleen to me. Those words are "snorted" and "idiocy." As a female, snorting is not the epitome of femininity, yet it a key feature of Colleen's personality, and she still reads as entirely feminine. Why is that? Simple: time and place. She is in the company of her brother and her fiance -- a man she has known since childhood -- and what she is reacting to is actually the ease of their relationship, but as it pertains to her. Word choice and word placement must match if the character involved is going to seem real. As well, the fact that snorting is not inherently feminine speaks to Colleen's humanity. She seems real because in real life, we do not often behave in perfectly defined stereotypes of "correct" behaviour. So, you can define an attribute a certain way and have your character violate those social norms -- just like a real person would almost certainly do at some point. If the feminine is polite, dainty, well-behaved (whatever the culturally accepted norm might be, and I'm just throwing words out here), then a real woman would at some point be none of those things. Meaning, your character must violate those expectations, as well.

So, for real characters, observe people. Keep your language simple, your actions authentic to time and place, your reactions appropriate to the character's relationship and mood, and every now and then, violate social expectations to proclaim your character's humanity.

Happy writing - Leigh :)

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