My best friend and I are low-key convinced that author Rainbow Rowell has been spying on us. Based on how often we pointed to an exchange between fictional best friends Beth and Jennifer in her first novel Attachments and said “Oh my God, this is so us!” or “We’ve actually had this exact conversation,” the only logical explanation was that Rowell was cribbing our lives for her own gains. Or, you know, she’s just extremely talented when it comes to authentic storytelling. Take your pick.
I follow Rowell on Twitter—not to brag, but we’ve interacted on several occasions—and on a near-daily basis, I see her retweet fans who are thanking her for the work she’s done and the characters she’s written. Because she’s mostly known for her young adult fare, it’s usually tweets about Eleanor of Eleanor and Park fame or Cath from Fangirl, but having read all her books, I can attest that there’s a strong thread of commonality running through them all: emotional authenticity.
Image attribution: Negative Space
To me, the popularity of Rowell and other contemporary, realistic writers speaks to a continued trend in today’s consumers: We want storytelling that feels real. Perhaps it’s because millennials are often themselves content creators, so we know instinctually what’s engaging on an emotional level and what’s just a bunch of sizzle without the steak (or portobello mushroom, for my vegan friends). And when I say real, I don’t just mean devastating scenes of kids dying from cancer à la John Green—although that does count. I mean the whole kit and caboodle.
People are complex creatures who experience a wide range of emotions: happiness, rage, confusion, sadness, blehness, etc. The content we consume needs to reflect that. Too often, what we get is a poorly parroted version of our lives that’s about as realistic as spray-can cheese. It’s got just enough to give you a sense of what it’s trying to accomplish, and it can get the job done in a pitch, but you know it’s just a rip-off of the real thing.
That approach may have worked in the past, but not anymore. These days, the old ways of trying to engage with consumers are dying off because they no longer ring true. We can see the man behind the curtain, and we’re not impressed by the smoke-and-mirrors show he’s trying to distract us with. We crave things we can connect with on an emotional level, and if that’s not an important aspect of a story, then it’s pretty much guaranteed that we’re not going to stick around.
There’s a concept in the world of storytelling called the Mary Sue. The TL;DR explanation is that a Mary Sue is a female character who is perfect in every conceivable way. But despite all the people fawning over her, she’s completely oblivious to how amazingly wonderful she is. This, and perhaps a penchant for stumbling, is her only flaw. As you can probably imagine, it’s next to impossible for this kind of character to feel authentic; it’s often viewed as a way for the author to self-insert and live out a fantasy version of their life (and thus, it’s pretty much the opposite of realistic).
Rowell, bless her, writes with not a Mary Sue to be found. Her characters are flawed, sometimes severely so. They make dumb choices that can leave you wanting to throw the book across the room. Park, refusing to believe his ex-girlfriend could be the person leaving obscene notes on Eleanor’s textbooks, accuses Eleanor of writing them herself. It’s a moronic thing to do. And that’s real. Life is messy and complicated, and people rarely make the right decision on the first go. We slip up, we fall down, and we completely, totally blow it. Engaging with a character who can be just as bad at life as we are may be frustrating, but it also keeps us interested because we just have to know how it’s going to end. And if they succeed, not only can we rejoice, we can apply that inward and say, “Hmm. Maybe if it worked out for them, things will work for me too.”
Image attribution: Nubia Navarro
If we’re going to take the time out of our day to engage with content, it needs to take us on a journey that means something.
Rowell does this exceptionally well. Even within a single scene, which might be all the time freelance writers have with their audiences, she can take you through this series of escalating emotions until you’re left wondering why anyone else even bothers trying to write books. Or at least that’s what I think.
In order to do this well, consumers need to be grabbed instantly—from the first line, the first shot, the first second they’re expected to interact with it. You’ve heard all the talk about how short our attention spans are getting, so really this is just common sense. But you can’t stop there. You have to follow through on your promise of something compelling (or funny, if that’s the route you chose) and keep your audience engaged for the duration of their stay.
Of course, a brand storyteller doesn’t have the space of a 300-page book. So how can you convey an emotionally authentic character and get your message across to an audience in a blog post or 30-second commercial? The first step is to have your character fully formed in your head. It’s hard to get anything off the ground if you don’t know whom you’re writing about. Ask yourself some key questions to get to know your characters: How do they see themselves? What are their hobbies and interests? Does your character use a lot of gestures when they talk?
Having these answers in mind will make the next step, coming up with realistic dialogue and behavior, easier. If you’re writing a serious father who speaks in slow, measured sentences, it’s probably not best for him to make a wisecracking joke during your scene. Once you know your characters, the key to writing good dialogue is using realistic speech patterns that move the story along and convey the right emotion while getting your intended message across. But don’t be afraid of silence; sometimes the best thing for the scene is letting the emotion carry it.
When it comes to writing a character people want to engage with, you have to know the story you want to tell. By determining the ins and outs of their motivations and the impact you want it to have on your audience, you’re one step closer to creating something emotionally authentic your audience can connect with.
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Featured image attribution: Eunice Lituañas