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Mass-1024x698.jpg?resize=525%2C358&ssl=1There’s a concept in storytelling that I’ve long tried to understand: “authentic”.  Mostly it’s invoked with respect to characters.  It’s important to know them.  It’s important that they act and speak in ways consistent with who they are, whether entering a room or rocketing to the stars.  It’s also important to know how they came to be who they are.  Back story wounds and burdens shape and define them and become the engines of change.

If writing is “authentic” then every gesture, action and utterance is “honest” and everything observed is rendered in a way both original and pinpoint accurate. “Authentic” means writing not to formula but as characters would actually behave, whatever the circumstances.  “Authentic” means they go about their business in their own ways, not the author’s.  Even when they are inspired by real people or reflect the author’s own experience, if characters are “authentic” then a story will always have internal logic and integrity.

It’s something like that.

What bothers me is, how does knowing characters and honoring their independent existence help you to write a story?  I mean, it’s nice if characters behave in ways that are lifelike—or which at least conforms to our understandings of them—then, so far, they can only display who they are.  A backstory-induced need is a good thing and can propel a character toward some sort of emotional resolution, but by doing what?  On top of that, when characters are strongly defined and consistent how can they surprise us?

Heck, how do you even get to know a character so utterly well in the first place?  Well, there are tools.  Lots of them.  Still, building a character is not the same as inhabiting a character.  Making characters real isn’t entirely about writing their biographies.  You can’t psychoanalyze them into being.  It’s about knowing their human hearts: their contradictions, aches, sore spots, masks, denials, disappointments, goodness, humor, fears, loves and loses.  It’s about giving them life which in turn means giving them freedom, not just to be “authentic” but to take initiative, back off, blunder, bluff, grumble, gamble, flail, fight and find their way.

Writing authentically (note that I have dropped the ironic quotation marks) is a surrender of the selfish author-self and the courageous surrender to a character-self.  It’s truly loving someone.  When that happens, characters launch from the nest and fly.  They can fall, soar and surprise us.  Even so, how is that surrender accomplished?  How do you not only construct characters but breathe life into them?  How do you discover them—the heart of them—and surrender to love?

It has to be simple, doesn’t it?  Why, then, do many writers find authenticity difficult and many manuscripts present us with characters who aren’t as fully-rounded and fascinating as they might be?

The Walking Stick

In an essay1, Bram Stoker Award-winning horror writer Gary A. Braunbeck, who is also an actor, recalls the story of the great Laurence Olivier, a “technical” actor who understood the roles he played from the outside looking in, observing in order to understand.  (That is in contrast to Method actors who work from the inside out, finding within themselves what makes a character—hopefully—seem real.)

Once, when rehearsing a Noel Coward play in which he was to play a prissy English lord, Olivier wasn’t getting a handle on his part.  Then, passing an antique store, Olivier saw a hideous walking stick for sale in the window.  He purchased it and the moment he had it in his hand realized that he knew the character.  How simple a solution!  However, in reading Braunbeck’s recounting of this acting anecdote, I realized something: The anecdote itself, for me, brought Laurence Oliver to life.

That’s curious.  Why?  True enough, I am privileged enough to have once seen Lord Oliver perform—playing an American, no less, in London in Eugene O-Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night—but that isn’t it.

What makes this anecdote authentic is nothing particularly lifelike or predictable about Olivier.  Rather, it is that what Oliver did.  It’s surprising.  It shows us something about him.  In discovering his character, we in turn discover him.  Who would expect that a walking stick would open a world?  There’s magic in Oliver’s “technical” method, actually: a human heart abiding inside the acting machine.  It’s something we don’t expect.

For us, there is a multifold lesson in this walking stick.  First, you can build a character from the ground to the sky, from birth to now, and explain all of that on the page but none of it will bring that character to life as effectively as a simple surprise: an active moment which both reveals a person, runs contrary to our expectations or fulfills them in ways beyond our imaginations.

Second, every human is a mystery.  Every human keeps secrets, even from himself or herself.  Those hidden pockets of oneself have revelatory power.  When characters reveal their true selves, we readers get a jolt of insight.  We are shocked awake and feel smart.  Our minds are stimulated and our hearts are enlarged.  We bond.  We surrender.  For a moment, at least, the story is alive…or should I say authentic?

(No wonder, BTW, that domestic suspense is so popular.  Reveals and twists—springing things that the reader doesn’t yet know—are the structural basis of novels that range from Gone Girl to 13 Reasons Why to Pretty Little Liars to You.)

Third, authentic characterization actually is easy after all.  All that’s needed is a way in.  That can come from a single memory, a simple prompt, a puzzling anomaly, a question needing an answer, an indelible image or any other thing that acts as a key to unlock…well, not a character per se but your own heart.

Authentic writing of characters isn’t deep-bore mining—that’s hard—it is rather opening yourself to those parts of others which we normally don’t see and tend to avoid.  Hurt a little.  Ache a lot.  Want impossibly.  Believe in magic.  Open yourself for a minute.  Grasp a walking stick.  Feel what it is like to be someone.  After all, you are someone too.  How hard is that?

Time to make this practical.

Authenticity Made Easy

Pick a character and…

What is something big that this character can—or is unlikely—to do?  What kind of grand gesture?  What kind of extravagant insult?  What tender gift or sentimental token?  What blazing revenge?  What stunning insight into or show of sympathy for another?  What stupefying example of carelessness?

When can this character become angry to a degree out of keeping with the situation?  Enact that without explaining why.  Later, explain why.

What fear, superstition or quirk can this character have?  Work out its origin, the more unexpected the better.  Later, reveal it.

Who in the story is secretly in love?  What anonymous signals can be sent?  Sweet?  Creepy?  If sweet, turn the attention obsessive.  If creepy, show that the interest is benign.  How can this character sabotage another suitor, or how can this character nobly sacrifice himself or herself for the loved one?

What is this character trying to hide from others, deny, forget or get over?  How does this underlying, unresolved matter nevertheless bubble to the surface?  How is it projected onto/into different sorts of situations?  What can this character do that will leave others confused, confounded or upset?  Who is the most unexpected person to figure out what’s behind it all?

If this character is larger than life, what is the simple human hurt or joy that drives all that he or she has ever done?  Later, reveal that.

If this character is ordinary, what is a superhuman dream, risk or gamble that this character can only secretly dream of undertaking?  One day, out of the blue, he or she does it.  Why on that particular day?  Explain the reason for that timing only after the fact.

What mousy person can accept a dare?  What bully can prove beneficial?  What prude is secretly sexy?  What coward can show courage?  What millionaire wastes money?  What solid citizen has a dark side?  What makes it possible for a rebel to find the way home?  Who is anyone in the story who can act in a way contrary to our expectations?  Why?  Let the explanation be a reveal.

What does this character want that is supposed to be a secret but everyone knows all about it?  Actually, though, everyone is wrong!

What desire is this character hiding from himself or herself?  What pain is he or she denying?  What matters but is too important to admit or show?  Find a roundabout way for that to be apparent to the reader.

What makes your heart ache for, cheer or despise this character?  Is it…

  • A lost recipe for pie?
  • An empty photograph frame?
  • A childhood treasure?
  • A smart suit or high-heeled shoes?
  • Sand still in summer sneakers?
  • Iron armor worn against insults?
  • A burial plot already purchased?
  • A special anniversary cocktail?
  • A one-way plane ticket?
  • Saved ribbons but no packages to wrap?
  • Crippling guilt?
  • No one to tell about…
  • Persistent weeds
  • Unneeded humility
  • Unearned self-assurance
  • A great idea that people ignore
  • A terrible plan that people applaud
  • Guiltless cheating
  • Faith when all is hopeless

…whatever simple thing connects this character to you and makes this character real in your heart, write a passage that springs from that detail.  Explain it.  Then fold it into your story.

As you can see, authenticity and accuracy are not the same thing.  Accuracy may have a documentary dazzle but authenticity carries human truth.  What is honest in fiction?  It’s when characters reflect not just our everyday behavior but our mightiest hurts, hopes, secrets and joys.  It’s when reveals surprise us yet cause us to smack our foreheads and mutter, “Of course!”

Authenticity is when we recognize ourselves in your story, not as we look on the outside but how we are on the inside.  It’s behavior that reveals us all as flawed, fabulous, furious, funny…that is to say, completely and perfectly human.  Authenticity is when you connect effortlessly with a character and love them enough to conceal them, reveal them and convey through them the whole messy-beautiful experience of being alive.

What does authenticity mean in your story?  What are you adding today?

  • “Connecting the DOTS” by Gary A. Braunbeck, collected in Writers Workshop of Horror, Michael Knost ed., 2010, Woodland Press LLC, Chapmanville, WV.



About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


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