Character Authenticity: How to Nail Shut the Trap Doors in Your Story

Lack of character authenticity is the trap door of the literary world. Readers can be skipping along, humming cheerfully to themselves as they explore a lovely story and then whoosh! Down they go. Because a character did something inauthentic. Because suddenly, NOTHING MAKES SENSE ANYMORE.

You can have the most FLAWLESSLY crafted plotline in the whole history of bloody creation, but if character motivations and actions don’t line up, IT WILL ALL BE FOR NAUGHT.

I’m using a lot of caps-lock here so you know this is serious stuff.

Character Windows.jpg

Main Character Inauthenticity:

This. Is. The. Worst. Sometimes, we get such a firm vision in our minds of how the story is supposed to go, we forgot that the plot isn’t the only path that needs to be followed.

Picture yourself as a builder of roads, except you’ve got to lay two roads at the exact same time: the plot road, and the character road. These roads should never diverge from each other, no matter how many obstacles your character comes up against. What we sometimes see is a straight plot road with the character road wibble-wobbling all over the place. Those wibble-wobbles are the places where your main character is making no sense whatsoever.

For instance: Despite having been a complete coward thus far, the main character runs toward the bloodcurdling scream. Out of curiosity. I’m sorry, but cowardly people do not run toward bloodcurdling screams. It’s not in our nature. True story. I actually heard one once. And no, I’m not proud of the fact that I froze, wondered if I should call 911, and then decided everything was okay when the screaming turned to laughter.

Someone might have been tickled to death because of me. I will carry that shame with me for the rest of my life.

Say you need your main character to run in that direction. Pause for a moment and consider what motivation would be required. Perhaps they have reason to believe someone they care about is doing the screaming? Perhaps they finally mastered their power and are ready to kick bad guy behinds now? Perhaps they think it’s a television set playing a favorite horror movie they’re keen to see? Whatever the reason—make it a good one.

Another example: Your main character decides to go somewhere with a hot stranger who’s giving off a dangerous vibe. I see this situation in a lot of fiction for teens and frankly, it ticks me off. Just because a teenage girl thinks a guy is hot, doesn’t mean she’s going to ignore the warning signs and toss aside all the advice her parents have been hammering into her head since she was three years old. She’s much more likely to play the “Stranger Danger” card and make a run for it.

It comes down to who your character is, how they were raised, what their basic beliefs are, and how they react in difficult situations. And don’t forget the crucial element of what’s happened in your story up to that point. A character who’s been put through the emotional wringer will react differently than one who’s had a pretty happy go of things so far.

Consider the emotional angles of each scene. People don’t always make sense, looking from the outside in. But if you’ve got a decently deep POV going on (something I highly recommend), your reader will be looking at the story from the inside, which makes emotional authenticity all the more crucial.

Secondary Character Inauthenticity:

Does your best friend/sidekick character blithely go along with whatever the main character says, seeming to possess no free will or independent thought of their own? Do the parents never worry about their teen’s whereabouts? Can your adult main character skip work without their boss making a stink?

I sometimes mollify myself with the thought that these secondary characters might turn out to be cyborgs, but I am almost always disappointed. Usually, they’re just cardboard cut-outs of the people they could have been if the author brought them to life properly. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid this:

  • If your main character says/does something dumb, have a secondary character call them on it. Real friends don’t let friends be stupid. Unless they’re super sadistic and like watching the inevitable fallout, of course. Which could make for fantastic
  • While your main character’s story arc is important, your secondary characters should have some input. They can make suggestions. Try and fail at things. They can grow pissed off at your main character for ignoring them due to their pursuit of the main goal. They have feelings and opinions of their own. We should see them.
  • Try writing a scene from a secondary character’s point of view. Visit the inside of their head for a while. Characters are the windows of your story. Open all of them!
  • You should know what your secondary character’s personal goals are. Even (and especially) if their main goal is to support the main character. They need to have a reason for sacrificing their time and energy. If their goal contradicts the main character’s goal at some point, all the better. This is where conflict is born.

Your reader doesn’t have to love the decisions your characters make, but they do need to understand them to a certain degree. All of your characters should be three dimensional, flawed human beings (unless you’re writing about aliens, in which case, more power to you). In other words, THEY SHOULD BE LIKE YOU (unless you are an alien, in which case, AWESOME. Let’s do lunch).

Nail shut the trap doors in your story. Build your roads as parallel to each other as you can. And don’t mix your metaphors the way I always do. It’s kind of lame.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Earning Your Ending

Recently I watched an episode of a show—a show that I normally really enjoy—but this episode left me annoyed and frustrated and I couldn’t stop thinking (i.e., internally venting) about it. One of the characters did something very out of character, something that should have had serious repercussions, but that didn’t happen. It was all shrugged off as if it didn’t matter. I finally figured out that what bothered me wasn’t the happy ending (I love happy endings). It was the fact that the show didn’t earn that ending.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to earn your ending lately, pretty much ever since I watched the extras for Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast. (I love extras on movies, too) They were talking about how one of the first scenes they planned out was the very last scene, but they knew that they would have to work hard to earn that ending.

But what does it mean to earn your ending?

I think it means that the character has to struggle. Things go wrong, they fail, and they want to give up. But they don’t. They keep trying even though their pathway isn’t strewn with roses and chocolates. (And, really, who wants that? Roses have thorns that really hurt when you step on them and chocolate melts and makes a huge mess on the carpet.)

If things are too easy for your character, it’s much harder for readers to care about them. It’s also boring. Who wants to read about someone with a perfect and easy life?

So think about your ending. Where do you want your character to end up? Then work backwards from that point to put them through the opposite situation. If you know what your character loves more than anything, take it away from them. If you know what they fear most, force them to encounter it.

Yes, I am saying that you basically need to ruin their lives, but then you fix it for them and you’ll have earned it.

What do you think about earning your ending? Do you think it matters or not? Do you have any techniques or a process you use for earning your ending?_________________________________________

Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Three A-Ha Moments: Wired for Story

I have been studying fiction writing and writing fiction since 2003, when I needed an outlet from my technical writing job. I have read approximately 100 books on fiction writing, most of them seminal about writing: Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, Donna Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict (GMC), Robert McKee’s Story.

After 13 years, it takes a pretty special book to teach me anything that I don’t already know (or state things in such a way that get through my thick skull).

Well, I found that book: Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. It’s by Lisa Cron, a former literary agent and supervising producer for TV shows. She now teaches writing for UCLA.

Wow. Can I just tell you…wow.

It discusses the psychology behind why a reader gets sucked into a story. And I knew I needed to find such a book. I’m awesome with the mechanics of writing—but I wanted to become an even better storyteller. (Note: Being a good storyteller is not the same as being a good writer, just as being a good writer does not mean being a good speller.)

Because I want everyone to buy Wired for Story (I have no ties to this book, and I don’t know the author), I will only name Three A-Ha Moments for me. Just so you know—I wrote 20 pages of notes, front and back, with A-Ha Moments. Just naming three is basically 3% of what I learned from this book.

1: Story equals the internal conflict, not the external conflict. 

Think about your typical action movie. There are pretty awful ones out there, and then there are pretty awesome ones out there. The difference? The action movies that made you feel for the characters (and showed you their internal conflicts) are the ones that stand out. This is why I love Twister, The Day After Tomorrow, and Independence Day. The screenwriters spent time showing internal conflict. The action movies that I didn’t feel as much were Captain America and the latest Avengers movie. They were more about the external conflict, and that made me not so invested with the characters…and as a result, I wasn’t invested in the story (i.e., I fell asleep during these movies).

2: Each plot twist and turn must make the protagonist deal with their internal issue. 

Let’s take a look at one of my favorite action films: Twister. When the twisters came, there was something that usually forced the hero and heroine face their internal issues: the niggling doubt that they shouldn’t sign those dang divorce papers. Imagine if Twister hadn’t had Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt dealing with finalizing their divorce—that it was just a couple throwing zingers at each other. I’ve seen many movies like this—the screenwriters think the mild agitation between the hero and heroine is a good enough internal conflict. Um, no, I don’t think so.

3: External vs. Internal Goals showcase who you think you are vs. who you really are. 

Back to Twister. The external goal is to get Dorothy up in a twister to get a reading on it, so that humans can better predict when a twister is coming. So the protagonist (Bill Paxton, since he’s the one who has to change the most by the end of the movie) has to face the fact that he wants to get Dorothy up in the twister (external goal). But what he’s really facing/who he really is? If he just wants to be a weatherman vs. a field scientist, and if he just wants to be married and safe and sound with the marriage counselor vs. married and adventurous with his storm-chasing first wife.

By the way, there are even MORE awesome nuggets of awesome in Wired for Story. So do yourself a favor and get this book. Read it. Study it. And apply it to your own writing.

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Sydney Strand is a fiction writer who has published two young adult books through New York and another six books via self-publishing. Over the last two years, she has focused on writing fun romances, but not of the Red Room of Pain variety. More like the Dan and Roseanne/Sam and Diane variety–humor is sexy, dontcha know. You can follow Sydney on Instagram (1st Favorite), Twitter (2nd Favorite), and Facebook (Not a Favorite). She’s also at www.sydneystrand.com. (Her favoritest of favorites.)