Friday, May 6, 2011

Being Authentic in Writing

For speculative fiction writers it is often said that we need as much authenticity as possible on our books in order to make our created worlds believable. I keep running into situations, however, where being authentic hurts the story for some readers.

The most recent example of this has to do with the second chapter of my science fiction thriller, in which I use Russian mafia antagonists. I tried to make these characters as authentic as I could, based upon my extensive experience with Russian Mafiosi. They were all over the place in Moscow when I lived there. You couldn't even tell who was genuine and who wasn't, because there were so many young men copying their styles.

The problem is that some readers have complained that the Mafiosi in my story are too clich├ęd, yet that is precisely what makes them authentic. Russian mobsters, at least in the 90's, seemed to take pride in imitating famous mobsters of the past, such as Al Capone or the Godfather. Other than their clothing (they seemed to like track suits and flat-top haircuts), they didn't try to be unique. The more outlandish and unusual I make my Mafiosi, the less authentic I am being. If my Mafiosi seem overly brutal and speak like thugs, it's because that's the way they really behave in my experience. I suppose many would say that the story is what matters, so forget being authentic and just make the characters memorable. I do want to make the characters memorable, but I prefer to do it within the constraints of what I know these folks are actually like in reality.


  1. Characters should be who they want to be and what the story needs them to be. If they are comfortabe being like the typical cliche Al-Capone, then let them be.

    However, to please everyone, you could have another of your characters mention this. The fact that they pick up on it, even just briefly, tells the reader that 'yes, they are cliche, but they are supposed to be! That's them! That's the way the Russian Maffia have always been, and these people are traditionalists...'


  2. Funny you mention that. Just before he is killed, a character calls the head mafia baddie a 'cliche', and the mafiosi thanks him and tells him how much he admires Capone and the Godfather.

  3. I think for speculative fiction in particular "verisimilitude" is far more important than "authenticity".

    I like that your characters acknowledge their habits though. Makes me think of that great old Star Trek episode with Kirk hamming it up as a mobster. :)

  4. I had the same conversation with another writer. She was worried about her gangster looking too cliched. The problem isn't the character in the book, it's that most gangsters ARE a cliche.

  5. yeah. i don't know anything about mobsters, really. but i think that drc's comment was a gem, and your reply shows that you've addressed it well...

  6. Sounds like a fine line you have to walk there.

  7. Caught up on some of your older posts though I didn't comment. Some incredible stories you have. Hope they aren't classified!

    On this, though, I'll comment. I read once that an American author writing a novel taking place in Paris asked her publisher to send her to Paris so she could get some authentic details.

    Sneaky, eh.

    The publisher said, No, you don't want to be too realistic. It's possible to know ~too~ much about your subject matter.

    Another quote I've seen is this: I get enough real life in real life. I want ~fiction~!

    So the point is write what you know, but don't write all you know, and like you said, make it interesting, even if unrealistic.

    I run into this in my longer pieces. I tend to dive into the backwoods, where I grew up, and I find myself giving overt details that may or may not add value to the story, or that may not be believable to someone who never experienced it.

    For instance, I sent an alpha-scene to a reader and she said, That language sounded gratuitous. It was so ~racist~ and obscene.

    I said, That's how people talked when I grew up, and this dude was a bad-guy.

    So I had to tone it back, same as you're facing, despite the fact that it was inaccurate.

    Be unrealistically realistic, and remember your audience. This ain't a documentary! ;)

    I will add this, though. Pepper in some realistic details. It will satisfy your need to be accurate, while still hooking the reader.

    For instance, include a character or a gang who acts in the genuine Russian mafia style, but write the others how the reader might imagine them to be (i.e. fictionalize them completely, one-eyed Russians with hooks for hands and steel-plated teeth and such).


    - Eric

  8. There was a cover of National Geographic about six years ago or so. New information had been discovered on King Tut and they pictured a facial reconstruction based on the skull and etc etc. They they colored the facial reconstruction as was appropriate for an Egyptian of that period.

    And they received a TON of complaints. in an effort to not indulge in stereotypes, people often create anti-stereotypes, their own preconceptions based on how things should be if the man wasn't keeping [x] down.

    The claim with the cover was that they had made King Tut white. Now, this wasn't Scandanavian pale white, but there was a golden/olive hue to the skin that clearly denoted the person as not Arab.

    What's the obvious flaw? Egyptians aren't Arab. Neither are Iranians/Persians. Both are caucasoid peoples and have fairer skin than their Arab neighbors. The scientists who did the facial reconstruction WERE Egyptian, so had no reason to whitify one of their own pharaohs. But in an effort not to be racist, people went the opposite way.

    You can't please everyone, so write how you think it should be. Find the truth to the moment. And steel yourself for people who think they know more than you even though they've never been to Moscow.

    (Bill Nye got booed in Texas for saying that the moon didn't emit its own light but reflected the sun's. Seriously, let that be the lesson. Someone can always find something to disagree with.)

  9. Yeah, I will write it and if any agent shows interest then they can tell me where I need to adjust some things. I'm not going to make my characters over-the-top spouters of Shakespeare or something just to satisfy peoples' needs to have characters be much bigger than life. 'Bigger than life' has become such a cliche in novels that I start waiting to see how each character will be made larger than life as I read each book. I'll continue to use more subtle ways to differentiate them.

  10. I agree with the people above, you just have to use the narrative to point out the ridiculousnous of the character wanting to be a cliche.

  11. I don't think your characters need to be "bigger than life" just more interesting than everyday life. I can't say I really have a picture in my head of what a Russian mobster looks like. What I think of are the Bourne movies, but that's probably not even close.

    So, heck, write what you know, but don't be afraid to fictionalize too. Don't just make them the thug on the street you witnessed in person -- make them the thug that ignites your reader's imagination or fear or whatever your unique story calls for. My two cents. :)

  12. Yeah, I think the key to using authentic cliches is to find a way to frame that very idea in the text, and make it conscious for the reader - that cliched behaviour can be a conscious choice for people, with reality reflecting fiction. Stories and images shape reality, and if you can make this clear for the reader they'll probably flow with the story and accept the characters.

  13. Thanks, Bryan. I wish my American character met with the Russian ones sooner, because having outsiders makes it much easier to have discussions about such details.

  14. Hmm. Sorry I missed all this. I have a cliched character in my story, but the cliche is acknowledged and then later broken. I don't really see it as a problem, but you make a good point that an agent can always request changes.