Do Your Characters Have ‘Felt Life?’

Man's faceOne piece of writing advice we keep hearing over and over again is that the characters in our stories should be authentic – that they should exude a sense of verisimilitude.

But this is easier said than done. It takes years of meticulous observation of people to grow a sufficient understanding of their motives, fears, hopes, and goals, and even then, there’s no guarantee that this understanding can be communicated through a story in a way that makes it feel authentic. If that were the case, EVERY lawyer or psychologist would automatically become a bestselling author or Oscar-winning screenwriter. There have been some successful writers emanating from those illustrious professions, but by no means all. Why?

The truth is that writing requires techniques specific to the art of writing. Technique, in this sense, is the method of distilling an author’s experience of the world into a story that convinces the reader of its authenticity.

One way to achieve this is to imbue your characters with a sense of ‘felt life.’ The idea is to have your characters effervesce a pervasive sense of their likes, dislikes, values, and individual memories and foibles, so that they spring to life.

Here’s an example, drawn from my latest book, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, in which the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, describes his love for a specific cafe located in Mission Beach on Australia’s east coast:

“There is a small cafe off the beaten path near Mission Beach in the north that makes the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. Miranda and I once had breakfast there, as newlyweds, while on a tour across Australia and the place stuck with me; but that was a long time ago.

These days you know the shop is there, even though it’s hidden by trees and shrubs and clamping bamboo that sways five metres tall, because the scent of freshly ground Brazilian coffee can keep no secrets.

The tables, now mostly vacant, are covered with green tablecloths with cigarette burns. The chairs have thatch seats that creak when you sit down, though never enough to spoil the constant stream of blues and jazz on vinyl from a Philips turntable. The walls are strewn with dusty black and white photographs of the town before they found coal, a few kilometres up the road.

Not many people drift into O’Hara’s anymore. They built a pier nearby with the coal money and a three-level shopping centre, with more parking than there are people in the town. It’s filled with glass and chrome restaurants, bars and shops, and the place now draws much of the crowd away. I’m still a regular customer though.”

Benjamin’s sense of nostalgia, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, built out of coal money, which has more parking than there are people in the town, grants us an effective and concise snapshot of his personality – a sense of ‘felt life’ which gives the story its verisimilitude.

Summary

Make your characters more authentic by imbuing them with a sense of ‘felt life.’

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