An interesting point came up for me twice this past week, one that I think every writer (and non-writer) can relate to: what makes something/someone authentic? This comes up most commonly for people when determining if a person is being honest. They look that person right in the eyes and wait to see if he/she maintains eye contact or looks away as the guilt eats them up inside. From an author’s perspective, I think of this in terms of my characters, the lives they live, and what they say. Is my character’s dialogue looking me straight in the eye or is it staring off to the side, hoping it can pass off as something that sounds real?
For writers of memoirs or anything relating to something they’ve experienced, I’d think problems like these would be pretty easy to solve. If you can recall that specific moment of your life and channel it while you’re writing your piece, hopefully the tears from your eyes or the wave of nausea that passes over you is a sure indicator that what’s getting typed will connect with those who are reading your work. For me, on the other hand, the situation is a little different. My main character is a secret agent who works for the government and fights armed criminals on a daily basis. As you have hopefully assumed from the Quaker atmosphere I’m immersed in at Westtown School, this story is definitely not coming from personal experience.
So then how do I determine whether what I’m writing is authentic? When a teacher first asked me this, my first response was, “I don’t know.” And the fact of the matter is, I don’t think there’s one true answer to this question. I don’t know what it feels like to be under gunfire (counting my lucky stars that I never will) and quite frankly, not every writer who writes about the experience has been either. But there is something that every human being has experienced (or so I would hope): fear. Every emotion comes at different intensities and no matter the difference in how strong we’ve felt them, everyone has experienced sadness, jealousy, joy, friction, etc. So although I haven’t been in half the situations my characters have (here, I’m cuing the actors/actresses), I focus on their emotions, the closest thing to them I can relate to, when writing the intense action scenes. Not only that, but I look to other authors and the ways they’ve found it best to interpret various scenes. A little research never hurt anyone.
In summary, I think authenticity comes from within the writer. You can make your main character bawl his/her eyes out, but he/she won’t truly be sad unless you believe he/she really is. Only when you feel it can it come out in your writing. And believe it or not, your emotions show through in your work; the reader can tell. Though it may sound corny, staying true to yourself is the way you stay authentic.