I’ve written some safe novels and stories in my time—a few that don’t push too many buttons or go as deeply as they could. Then I have several that stand out due to edgier themes. I’m thinking of Moonlight on the Palms, for example. Some readers have called it sick and disgusting (if you don’t believe me, head over to Amazon and see the reviews for yourself); others have enjoyed it. The thing is, though, that it appalls some people. In my first novel, Magnolian, I have a romantic relationship that unsettles some people, so much so, that I had readers tell me they loved the novel but they didn’t think so and so in their family would. I was floored by these admissions but happy at the same time. I want to shake things up and present the world as it really is in all its messy glory.
And let’s face it. Life and love are complicated and uncomfortable. I want to tell the truth about the world. I’ve begun focusing on taking risks and showing life as it is…as much as I can. Life is lovely, ugly, scary, revolting, and amazing, isn’t it? Fiction should reflect those qualities, even as it gives readers an escape, and a happy ending if possible.
So, how can you take risks and “be real” in your writing? These are a few ways I’ve found that work and that help me get into the story and feel I’ve written something authentic.
Avoid perfect heroes and heroines. Is your heroine bossy, selfish, demanding, shallow while still being someone we’d like to know? Is she forty pounds overweight with thinning hair? Show us. Make her human. Is your hero impatient and childish at times? Is he ugly, rather than handsome? Don’t be afraid to let those qualities out on the page. Real people are complex physically and emotionally, with shades of good and bad.
Get down with the sickness. One of my writer friends recently remarked that I’m into this whole illness thing lately with my characters. I hadn’t really thought about it like that, but I suppose I am. The truth is, most people I know deal with physical, spiritual, or mental illness at some point in their lives. I have heroines with cancer, bulimia, and twisted ankles, among other ailments. A few of my heroes have phobias. Some don’t want to leave the house. A couple think their dead relatives are talking to them, and sometimes they are. 😉 These struggles make characters easier to relate to and care about.
Show human depravity as it really is. In To Summon the Darkness which is currently in editing, something really terrible happens to a character. I know some readers will dislike this part of the novel. The truth is that this event had to be written. It was the right thing for the story, and I know of similar, horrible things that have been done by people. Sorry this is so vague, but I don’t want to give away the plot. It’s enough to say that writing that comes from the heart and is authentic will at times be sickening and painful to read. If it is real, though, then readers will know that what you’ve written is not done just for shock value but because your story needed it to be the one it was meant to be.
Think tension. Life can be tense. All of us are striving for different goals, and that leads to conflict and pain. Take some time to think about what each character wants and how that is going to muck things up. Then show the minor tiffs, annoying episodes, and explosions that occur when characters collide.
So go ahead. Get real. How are you authentic in your writing? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!