The Authentic Character and Plot

One of the things that irks me when I am reading any book is when I encounter the inauthentic character, dialogue, and/or plot. You know what I’m talking about. The female cop who cries incessantly, trembles in fear when she draws her weapon, and doesn’t know any hand-to-hand combat. Then there’s a hero who is former military helicopter pilot who has flown in numerous missions under fire and during sandstorms but cannot seem to pilot a helicopter through a windy city. Really? How do these characters keep their jobs? It is not to say that certain professions require perfect behavior 24/7, but there is something about making sure a character’s personality characteristics are consistent with the demands of the profession you assign them. Yes, even are most trained soldiers may encounter panic during a firefight, but not during every single firefight. If they did, they would not survive. Lapses are understandable, but consistent behavior that lies in opposition to the task or job at hand is inauthentic.

Authenticity issues are not necessarily reserved for professions and personality characteristics, rather, it applies with dialogue as well. If you have a character who can barely read due to some learning disability, don’t have them reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” without any trouble. Additionally, keep terminology and language consistent with the character’s education attainment and reading proficiency. That is not to say that someone with only a high school diploma cannot handle reading high-level, scholarly books, but you need to build in the believability aspect. I have a friend who is a construction worker with only a high school diploma but he reads all the time and challenges himself with his reading material and it is plainly evident when you have a conversation with him that he is well-read regardless of the absence of a college diploma. Within dialogue, the author may feel compelled to write with the appropriate dialect, however, an English teacher will not “axe” someone a question. Yes, there are issues of dialect but not at the expense of demonstrating language proficiency, grammar, and speech.

Do not mistake my critique to include characters that I find annoying. There have been several novels and films where I found main characters to be extraordinarily annoying, however, if I am invested in the plot and/or the other characters, I overlook it. I never would’ve finished watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy if I let myself get hung up on an annoying or whining personality. In some cases, the annoying nature of the character is still important to the overall plot and relationship with other characters of the novel, film, or television show. So back to authenticity…

Sadly the inauthentic character, dialogue, and/or plot is something we find in a wide range of genres and sometimes, unfortunately written by popular authors. Depending on the level of disconnect I feel between the character’s personality and profession or behavior not only determines whether I finish the book, but also whether I will read any future novels written by that author. Some may argue that I am being too harsh, that when reading fiction or watching any fictional visual media, there is the willing suspension of disbelief. For me, that does not mean that I will accept the improbable as fact. If you are the only survivor of a catastrophic event, it is improbable that you will have electricity and running water. Who is working at the utility companies maintaining and operating the equipment if you are the last person alive? I do recognize that Samuel Taylor Coleridge acknowledged the reader to believe the unbelievable and place enjoyment above realism, but for me there are limits that I reach in which the object of my entertainment, be that a book, movie, or television show where I no longer find enjoyment or entertainment, rather just annoyance at the absurdity of what is being presented. This being said, I do not write reviews on works that I find to have authenticity issues. Just because I have limits to my willing suspension of disbelief does not mean that anyone else will see the characters, dialogue, and plot in the same way. That is the important part that makes us unique and I always encourage people to critically analyze any information, factual or otherwise, and come to your own conclusions.

These are my personal standards as a reader, however, I try to keep this in mind as a writer. I hope that I achieve the level of authenticity within my character development, dialogue, and plot that my readers will find to be believable.  I hope to meet the standard set by so many of my favorite authors, and they indeed have set the standard high, although I am not complaining. If it were easy, it would not be worth doing.

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