Authenticity and Research
“That would NEVER happen.”
It’s one of the most common critiques of fictional media, both in film and in writing. This is even true of science fiction and fantasy movies and novels, though not necessarily as it pertains to ‘realism.’ This critique is so common not because a scene is outlandish but because something about the scene feels inauthentic, even in the context of the fictional piece.
The key to avoiding this kind of critique is to build meaningful connections between your story and your readers. This is not to say that to be authentic, your characters need to be wed to reality. Instead, it’s pulling your reader into a story that feels believable within its context.
While there are many ways to build authenticity in your writing, the first and most critical way is to do your research.
Start by reading. A lot. The easy place to begin here is by reading books similar in plot, character development, or genre to your own. Identify how the author captures your imagination. What did they do to make you believe in the magical abilities of a young boy in London? What makes you root for the characters in these narratives? What kind of descriptions were most compelling? Take copious notes, and highlight critical things that you want to emulate in your writing.
Once you’ve read in your genre, then it’s time for the hard research. Does your book have a serial killer? Then pick up a few books on the psychology of serial killers to develop a version that’s authentically flawed. Does it have a crime? If so, be sure you read up on crime scenes and evidence collection. The more research you do on your novel’s topics, the more authentic your novel will become.
To break up the long hours of reading, you might consider digging into a documentary or podcast related to your book. Listen to the way your topic is described by those who know it best and use similar language in your characters. No one will believe an attorney made it to a high-stakes court case without being incredibly articulate and contemplative.
If you find you want to learn more about a profession, consider setting up an interview with someone in the same profession as your character. Pick their brain for information to help you develop a persona that is authentic to their field. Interviews are often easier to set up than you might think, considering many people love an opportunity to talk about themselves or their work. Coffee and tea conversations often go a long way!
Collecting all of this information wouldn’t be fun unless you also took the opportunity to get out of your house and visit your settings when possible. Do you have a scene in a coffee shop? Consider visiting one and letting yourself take in the surroundings. What does it sound like? Smell like? How do you feel when you there? Capture your experience and then write it from your character’s perspective. If your setting is on the moon or in another country, consider revisiting the idea of documentaries or even a virtual tour. Seeing your setting clearly in your mind will ensure more authentic descriptions.
When all else fails, mine your own experiences. Do some research on the events of your life. Spend some time writing about your biggest disappointments, your greatest successes, broken hearts, and lifelong friendships. Your characters will inevitably experience one or more of these emotions through the course of their journey. Reminding yourself of your own experiences with these emotions is a critical way to ‘write what you know’ and keep your characters authentic. Plus, this kind of research is free!
Research is often one of the more loathed pieces of the writing process, right along with revising. Still, it is crucial to an authentically-told story. Not to mention, critics love to write ‘that would NEVER happen!’ If you do your research right, you can count on keeping those words out of your comments section!