Authenticity in Writing

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It’s always rewarding when discussions with friends plant seeds of thought into my head; indeed, this happened recently with a friend who was discussing his enthusiasm for the thriller novel First Blood, which was adapted as the movie Rambo. One of the aspects my friend enthused about was First Blood’s apparent “emotional authenticity” and implied this infers the writing with a special quality.

Emotional authenticity, my friend asserted, tied into a theory of “characters driving the car whereas the story just kind of picks up the radio station.”

Well, let’s buckle our seatbelts and enjoy a cruise on a road trip to discover what emotional authenticity is and whether I agree with it being the motor that purrs under the hood of every decent story.

But first, what is “emotional authenticity”? A good question, not easily answered. From the various reading I’ve done on it since the question flew like a paper aeroplane into my mind and continues to circle, caught on an updraft of latent thoughts and musings. On a literal definition, emotional authenticity is a genuine expression of emotion. Whether we are emotionally authentic is a concept that seems so deeply ingrained in the psyche – the experience, the emotional response to it, the acknowledgement of the emotion and the assigning of adjectives to it and the expression of those emotions – that it is almost beyond definition. We as humans do this subconsciously many times a day, to many levels that seem to pass the conscious mind by.

But how does this normal, almost mundane subconscious response relate to writing? Essentially, it’s the ability of the author to be able to transpose themselves into their characters shoes and channel the emotion to something that others can relate to, empathise with and recognise as a genuine and believable emotional response.

This emotional authenticity is only half of the story though, literally. Obviously, characters should act and emote in a way that is broadly like how people act and emote in the real life; of course, this may be intentionally altered for the sake of characterisation. And this characterisation must, of course, be consistent – for example, if Jack Reacher from the Lee Child books was to suddenly start scrubbing the scullery floor this would be highly incongruous; likewise, if the downtrodden heroine from many a Catherine Cookson (my mum watches them on TV all the time) story were to suddenly find themselves in – and winning – a high-octane, action-packed fight then this would break the emotional authenticity of those characters.

The rest of the picture comes from situational authenticity. This can be tied into the example I just gave, switching the situations from a Lee Child and Catherine Cookson story, which are the most polar opposite I could think of on the fly. Situational authenticity is getting the events of the story right so they are not challenging, and in come cases, shattering the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This error with situational authenticity is something I have experienced a lot of issues with in books I have (attempted to) read.

While yes, anything can happen to any character, and in a work of fiction, anything can more or less go, imbuing a sense of situational authenticity just makes things seem plausible in the created universe. Do we expect the author to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every situation they could be writing about? Of course not, and part of being a fiction writer is being able to transpose storytelling skills – indeed, imbuing emotional and situational authenticity – into situations the author cannot possibly have experienced on a first hand level.

For emotional authenticity, does this mean the author need have that literal sense of first hand experience the emotions characters are expected to exhibit. This doesn’t mean a like-for-like emotional equation; just the ability for the author to empathise. If the author can empathise with the characters emotions, that’s a success. They don’t need first hand experience of the direct emotional incident to be able to empathise; that empathy can be derived from personal, similar experience or even from so far as witnessing how other people react to the emotion the author wishes their character to exhibit.

Case in point, a good friend from my Creative Writing class brought in the opening to a story they had written for the class. The beginning of the story was of an autistic boy making a scene on a bus in public, and with a harsh rebuke from an unsympathetic member of the public, told from the viewpoint of the boy’s sister. It was a deftly-done and sympathetic piece, but a notable member of our class complained that about “neotypicals” writing about autism, as if to say “only autistic people may write stories about autistic children!”

I disagree profoundly with both this assessment and this person’s attitude; indeed, as someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome I feel qualified to answer – their usage of autism as a shield from criticism, and as an excuse for their poor behaviour is totally unhelpful. But they failed, too, to acknowledge the context of this writing (arguably to challenge that view) but also that the author’s brother is autistic and this imbues the story with that emotional authenticity because the author transposes their direct experiences and empathy into that protagonist.

Turning back to situational authenticity, this is largely down to two things: doing your homework and consistency. An author is quite lucky in being able to write about time periods, characters and worlds they could not have possibly experienced. Indeed, fiction is by definition made up; but a piece with situational authenticity will be backed up with studious research. Not to the point of the work becoming an essay or treatise, but with pertinent attention to detail that, again, doesn’t strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. There will be no digital wristwatches in the Catherine Cookson, no laser pistols in the Lee Child, to give two examples.

But it is fantasy and science-fiction that I feel can experience the most difficulty with situational authenticity – especially with magic or advanced technology (which are sometimes indistinguishable, to quote Arthur C Clarke). Fantasy and science-fiction need to tread carefully to maintain situational authenticity to preserve the suspension of disbelief. Things must make sense in-universe; an example of this done well would be The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, which feels grounded in a sense of reality that is an effective dramatic device (spaceships don’t zip here and there like taxis, they’re very complex to fly); by contrast, a poor execution of this would be in The Soul Drinkers Omnibus by Ben Counter, where my suspension of disbelief was shattered by a poor explanation or build-up to the “chaos” theory within, which led to what I considered a clanger of a deus ex machina when the protagonist just happened to sprout a load of game-changing mutations at the climax of a key fight scene.

Of course, in considering both of these things, we must remember that ultimately it is a combination of both emotional and situational authenticity that really does sell a piece of prose. It adds a dimension to the story and the characters within. We expect some liberties to be taken – these are fiction pieces, and fiction tends to be more dramatic than real life, as it should be. Would we want to read stories that rigidly reflected real life? It wouldn’t be as exciting or dramatic. But it is important that both characters and situations do have a sense of truth to them, derived from humanity.

I hope this helps delve into a literary topic; indeed, my research has led to me realising quite how important these facets that support inventive and engaging prose can be. So consider me an authenticity convert!

Further Reading and research

Is it possible for writers to write about an emotion authentically without ever experiencing it directly? – Quora

What is authenticity in writing? – Quora

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