Authentic storytelling is not about telling an absolutely true story in terms of true events or actual people. It’s about telling a story that could be absolutely true, one that feels like it could, will, or has happened. Game of Thrones feels absolutely true when you read it. Those people seem as if they could step off of the page and walk around- probably skewer you for good measure, too- and everything they go through on a daily basis, all the emotions and decisions they feel and make, those feel true and real.
Authenticity is about getting down to the core of your characters and bringing out the messy, awesome, horrible humanity they have in them. But how do you manage that? No lie, George R. R. Martin has a gift when it comes to characters (not to mention keeping a huge cast of them straight and distinctive, and the complicated story web he has going) but anyone can write an authentic story. All it takes is a little bit of guts and a resolve to quiet the inner naysayers speaking in your brain.
Authenticity requires we reach down into our depths and pull out the stuff we don’t really talk about face to face with people. Everyone goes through grief, but one really talks about how it’s a stone tied to your tongue and dangling in your throat, how it chokes the breath from you, but you can still smile and breath on the outside to get through the day. Everyone has experienced being so high on happiness that it’s like their ribs are being pried open and the cold wind is swooping into the open cavity. That happiness so all encompassing and exhilarating it’s almost painful and you want that feeling to last forever.
You have felt those things and a million other’s that fall between and beyond those two emotional points. The trick is recalling them with words clear enough and brave enough to make the reader experience them as if the emotions were theirs, as if they were living the story. Authenticity is taking what you have felt and laying it bare for others to partake in with you.
Yeah, I know, I get shivers down my spine just thinking about it. Opening yourself up is a scary experience. Barring the things that crawl out of Stephen King’s brain, it’s probably the scariest thing you can do in the entire world. Reaching down into yourself to relive the emotions surrounding some of the worst or most intense moments of your life to fuel the words is akin to ripping your stitches over and over again so you can accurately describe the gruesome little details. And yet, by doing so you lend credence to your story, to your characters. You sew reality into the fabric of your imaginary people and they take a step into this world.
To write authentically means you can’t cut corners if you want to make an impact on your readers. The nagging little voices in your head will try to get you to gloss over things in favor of not doing the painful work of harvesting your past experiences. Don’t listen to them. They are nothing but fears voicing insecurities intent on holding you back. Because they are scared. Because it’s hard. Push past them. Without delving deep, you’ll rob your characters of meaningful interactions and your readers will sense that. The reader will know you’re not giving your all.
But don’t hurt yourself in the process of reaching for that authenticity. If you know you’re going to be going deep, take precautions. I have to listen to a certain set of music to put me in the right mindset for writing dark and hard stuff, stuff that is connected to some of the lowest times in my life. There’s no stepping off early when I do, so I also take care to make sure I’m not disturbed. And when I’m done, I turn off that music and I go indulge in something that lifts me out of that headspace. French bulldog puppy videos and mint chocolate bring me up when I’ve had to reach for anger or depression or revenge. Anything with explosions and food with cheesy goodness helps soothe my psyche when I’ve had to delve into deep embarrassment or rejection. Reach for the real stuff, but take care of yourself afterward, and take breaks when you can. You don’t want to stay in that intense space for longer than is healthy.
We may be writing fiction, but all good fiction has roots in reality, no matter if you’re writing about epic alien battles in space or the messy relationships of people going about their everyday lives. Be real and be true in your work, feel whatever you have to feel to achieve an authentic experience within your characters, and then take care of yourself. Then do it again the next day. And the next and the next. Never stop exploring your humanity for your fiction, and never stop writing.