One bit of advice we keep hearing is that our stories should feel real—that the characters they describe should be authentic.
But how does one pull this off?
An understanding of human nature does not necessarily mean that you can communicate it effectively in a story. The first requirement rests on observation, study and experience. The second assumes knowledge of the craft of dramatic writing. Both skills are necessary. Both are distinct.
Effective writing requires a mastery of techniques specific to the craft—techniques that allow writers to distill and transcribe their experience into stories that move us deeply. Being able to craft authentic characters is a step in that direction.
Characters who display likes, dislikes, foibles, specific values, and individual memories—characters that feel both unique and familiar at the same time resonate with us because we recognise ourselves in them.
Fear, hope, regret, loss, pain, and nostalgia are emotions we have all experienced at some time or another. Effectively evoking such emotions strengthens our involvement with a story.
“Characters who experience powerful emotions we recognise in ourselves, make for successful stories.”
Who can forget these lines spoken by the HAL 9000 computer as it is being shut down by Dave Bowman, in 2001, A Space Odyssey?
- HAL I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
- DAVE BOWMAN: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
- HAL: It’s called “Daisy.” [sings while slowing down, voice distorting] Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.
The pathos that this passage evokes serves to humanise HAL’s character.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, 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 for a past that has slipped away, his memory of the breakfast he once had here with his wife, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, grants us a heart-felt snapshot of his mental and emotional state – a sense of ‘felt life’, which gives the story its sense of authenticity.
Imbuing characters with emotion is a powerful technique writers use to draw readers and audiences into their stories.