How to inject life and authenticity into your characters

I’m in quite a few writer groups online. One of the most common questions I see is:

“I want to write about a character who is a [insert description here] but I know nothing about it. I’ve never experienced anything like that. Should I drop it? Should I just stick to writing about life experiences I’ve had myself?”

The answer is a resounding HELL NO! If all writers were to do that, the literary world would be pretty boring. That said, how do you go about it?

In this article I will be sharing with you a technique I use —both as a fiction writer and as a professional copywriter— to make the language in my writing sound more authentic, which in turns makes my characters more lifelike.

But first, let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, I was given a task by a client. I had to write a sales letter aimed at middle-aged women who have gone through a traumatic event in their lives (divorce, loss of a child, severe financial distress etc).

BUT!

I had ZERO experience of any of those things.

First of all, I’m not a woman. Next, I’m not middle-aged (well, now I am, but I wasn’t at the time), and I’ve thankfully never experienced a traumatic event such as these women have had to endure.

That said, I still wrote a powerful and extremely touching sales letter that spoke to those women’s deepest feelings.

How did I do it?

I made an in-depth investigation into the way these women speak — the words they use to describe their mental state, their situation and the events that they’ve had to endure. And with that knowledge in hand, I could then write a strong and heart-felt letter that these women could identify with.

So what does this have to do with writing characters in fiction?

Everything!

As writers, it is the language of our characters (and ours) that defines them and brings them to life. If the language is not authentic, the characters are flat and lifeless.

Thankfully, there are some great places out there where you can mine authentic language, and I’m about to share with you one of my favorites.

Amazon Reviews — Your personal gold mine of words REAL PEOPLE use!

When I had to write my sales letter for middle-aged women, Amazon.com is the first place I went. I looked up “Grieving”, “Dealing with financial crisis”, “Dealing with the loss of a child”, “Dealing with divorce”.

Using these keywords, I looked for books that these people have read, and then looked through the reviews to find emotional responses to these books. For example, here’s a gem that pops up in the very first comment for the second book listed in the search “dealing with divorce”.

“I was at an all-time low in my life, having just undergone a heart-wrenching breakup that turned my world upside down and inside out. How could I allow someone to treat me so horribly in the name of love? Why didn’t I recognize that I was being exploited? What was so damaged in me that I chose such a narcissistic mental case?”

If you’re blessed enough to never have had to go through a divorce, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to come up with more heart-felt and authentic words for your divorced character, than the ones written above.

Of course, I’m not saying you should quote that paragraph verbatim. The idea is to collect a “swipe file”. A swipe file is a collection of useful bits of writing, that you can use to assemble a complete and credible personality for your character.

Your swipe file will be your corner stone for authentic writing.

Then for your next step, you can always reach out to dedicated groups on the internet to help you with your research. Remember to always ask open-ended questions. Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Don’t ask “Did that make you sad?” Instead, ask “How did that make you feel?”

This is a crucial point. If you want to mine authentic language, you must allow it to flow freely, without attempting to direct its flow.

But before you start speaking with people directly, I recommend you do the Amazon mining exercise first. It will put you in the right frame of mind, and help you connect with these dedicated groups at a deeper and more emotional level. Once you have that connection, people will be more willing to open up to you.

Now, I’d love to know what you think about this article. Did you find it helpful? What did you like (or even dislike about it)?

Please leave a comment in the comments section below and let’s get the discussion going.