Creating Authenticity in Your Characters


It’s no secret that Hemingway is my favorite writer. From the very first day, during my freshman year of college, when the sun was shining clear and warm through the English department window and I was waiting for my grumpy, eczema-encrusted advisor to give me advice about dropping my “lame duck degree” as he called it, I had decided Hemingway was “it”. He understood things. He said them in a way that sounded like they were coming from my own head.

I was bored and there were no cell phones then, so I picked up my Norton’s Anthology of American Lit and it fell open to “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and I started to read. I knew that my professor didn’t like Hemingway and I loved my professor. She was wonderful, and she encouraged me, every time we spoke about literature, to “always keep writing.” But the minute I began to read Hemingway, I knew why she didn’t favor him over Tennyson, which she had us read often in class. She didn’t favor Hemingway, because he wrote from his brokenness and Hemingway was very broken. But he expressed his losses, his sadnesses, in such beautiful words, and I found that I would read the same line two and three times just to get the feel of the sentence on my tongue. This is how you know you’re reading a writer who writes the way you think: The words compel you to study them and read them over and over, to look for that “thing” that’s capturing your attention so. You know, without a doubt, that you’re finding yourself in there somewhere. Maybe not even in the setting or the characters, but in the cadence of the writer’s voice.

My life was a pretty broken one, too, even though I was a good kid who didn’t drink, swear, or sleep around. Still, something about Hemingway’s words lodged inside my writer brain and stayed there. I wasn’t partier, like Hemingway, and I certainly am not a risk-taker, like he was either. I didn’t hunt large or small game, or brag. Pride has never been a talent of mine. But I was not like the other students at my small Christian college. I realized that immediately, when I discovered that most of them had never been the designated “bloody Mary mixer” at the family Christmas party when they were seven years old. They all spoke quieter, too, with soft Southern voices and did their nails every night. I had a Southern mother who did her nails, but I grew up in southern California, where beauty was cultivated by the sun and good food, not from lacquered nails. The goal was always to wear make-up so that it looked like none was there and that you were healthier than everyone else in your company. I had four parents, each from a different culture and religion, and I had lived in five states by the time I was 18, and I had family who were alcoholics and religious fanatics, so yeah, I came from brokenness, too. Weird, beautiful brokenness, that I would not trade for anyone’s else’s perfection or quietness or lacquered nails. That’s all just a form of brokenness anyway. I’m glad that I know how to mix Bloody Mary’s better than most people I know. It’s all muscle memory now.

I still have brokenness. We all do. This is something that Hemingway understood from the time his mother dressed him in little girl clothes and made sit for family portraits that way.  He understood that he was broken even more when his leg got all shot up in Italy during the Great War, when he loved an older woman while he was recovering, a nurse, and she rejected him, because he was young and didn’t know anything and couldn’t possibly take care of her. And unlike so many other writers of his era, he knew that he couldn’t do anything about changing that broken past, so he used it to carve out good writing. People were drunks. People had affairs. People were depressed. People prayed. People hated and people loved. But the sun was still shining and the weather split through the humanity of all that. Just when he shocks you with a characters’ addictions, he lets the sun shine through the arguments and conversations, and he reminds you, me, and him, that the world still spins despite our human recklessness.

“They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe’ and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind” (Hemingway)

See how he makes the wind enter into the story and he creates shadows and light with it? He reminds us that Nature is bigger than we are, even as much as we believe we can control all things. I love how he did this. I have learned that if you can bring the wind and light, rain and fresh mountain air, into the movements of your characters, they will take better shape. The sun will give them their size and the crunching autumn leaves will give their walk rhythm and your reader will hear them coming.

So, when you’re writing something new, after you’ve finished the general narrative, stand back and look at it. Literally, stand up. Get out of the seat. Print a few pages. One chapter, maybe, and read out loud to yourself. Where is Nature missing in your piece? How are your characters’ senses effected by their natural surroundings? That will make all the difference in how you describe them. It will give them life just as Nature is literally giving us life at this very moment. That’s reality entering your fiction and allowing the reader to identify with it. Then, the brokenness of your characters, and their redemption too, will have more authenticity and won’t just look like you’re trying to affect something real. They will be real, just as you, who writes them, is real.


Click to access a_clean_well_lighted_place.pdf

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