Keeping it real

I was in the Co-op today and I got the munchies. Luckily, a packet of chilli crisps caught my eye, primarily because of its proud boast: made with real ingredients. I’m sure we can all remember the bad old days of counterfeit ingredients in our savoury snacks. Once I’d emptied the packet – and scanned it in for posterity – I thought about how it could apply to writing.

As a writer, I strive for a sense of realism in my fiction. Whether it’s Thomas Bladen working out who he can trust in Standpoint, or Syriem Taulpiris negotiating his way through higher realms of consciousness in Covenant, there’s always a set of conventions and a consistent logic that applies. My readers may have agreed to the suspension of disbelief by turning the pages but, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge inferred, it’s the writer’s job to keep it that way until the last page. Or preferably, afterwards – because if they’re still thinking about ‘What Syriem did next’ then they’ll probably want to read more of my work..

Plot, point-of-view, characterisation, dialogue and pace must all work harmoniously to create a reality so enticing that they’ll prefer it to the world they know, for a time. A key element of that is the authenticity of the emotions. Even if we haven’t faced a bullet, known personal disaster or seen death up close, we have all known fear and loss. We may not have experienced an epic love that took us across continents or worlds but we all know what love feels like to have or to be denied. Childhood alone will teach you most of that!

Generally, the only things that I find dilutes that authenticity of the emotions, are intellectualising what I think a character is feeling or not allowing myself to go deeply enough into a scene. Either way, it’s holding out on the reader and that’s a big no-no. It might seem like it’s all been done before but each time we feel something – really feel it – it is as fresh or as raw as the first time. Sometimes, even more so because it reconnects us with ther past.

And just as there are only so many ingredients in a snack (it was the first time I’d seen Calcium Chloride listed as a firming agent), so there is a finite number of ingredients to a book. The trick is to create a unique recipe,resulting in a distinctive flavour, that will satisfy your customers again and again.


  1. Brian Keaney says:

    Something else that distorts the authenticity of the experience, in my opinion is allowing the demands of the plot to dictate situations and behaviour rather than letting the situations develop from the characters.

  2. Derek says:

    The plot vs character debate is an interesting one. I've found that fully fleshed out characters not only resist a predetermined rigid plot structure but also, by their very natures, create new situations and consequences. The challenge comes when they rebel (or individualise) halfway through a chain of events, and refuse to fire the gun that you showed the reader being loaded. Anton Chekov knew what he was talking about! The solution, methinks, is to know your characters really well to begin with so you can trust them and guide them without resorting to blatant manipulation. That, or avoid genre fiction altogether!

  3. narerozi says:

    Knowing NOTHING about writing. . .,but A LOT about reading. . . I fully agree with you, Derek…makes sense to me. . . that could be dangerous 🙂 ~ hugs

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