I recently wrote an article on plot believability and was asked if this was the same as plot authenticity, since both seem to imply the same thing. In some respects they are alike, but in other ways they are dissimilar. Believability relates to the feasibility of situations occurring in the manner in which they are depicted; authenticity involves the specific characteristics of a scene as the reader believes the events would take place.
The Authenticity of a Happening
In a scene in an operating room, would a surgeon be allowed to continue to botch one operation after another when everyone on the medical staff knew the doctor was incompetent? Would a cop be allowed to shoot an unarmed person and go back on the street the next day? Could a lawyer–solely by the threat an injunction provides–prevent a spouse from stalking the man who was having an affair with his wife?
Now make logical conclusions based on what you just read. Could the same doctor in the earlier example remove the wrong limb and simply cover it up? Would a police officer make the mistake of shooting an innocent bystander for a second time in his career and be left to remain on the job in the same capacity? Would an attorney be foolish enough to think that a court order is going to keep a crazed spouse away from a cheating counterpart when a prior client was murdered under similar “paper” restrictions?
Competent Characters Displaying Incompetent Actions Won’t Work
Assuming it’s a human, once a character’s profile is crafted for the reader, it’s critical to understand the way this person’s actions are going to be perceived. Among other elements, perceptions can be determined by the character’s appearance, personality, and employment. For the purpose of this paper, let’s take these three traits as a starting point. If we’re wanting our character to be suave and debonair, this person can’t be 50 pounds overweight and a slob at the dinner table. Should our character possess a legitimate gentle disposition, this person wouldn’t do well as a sadistic murderer with no conscience. An FBI agent who is a long-time Agent-In-Charge wouldn’t be indecisive, forgetful, and prone to making the same mistakes over and over. Yet I’ve read drafts with these sorts of misrepresentations.
Consider the Global Nature of the Narrative
If the lead character is a crown prince and the son of the richest man in the world, and this person is kidnapped, how extensive would the search likely be? And if this child were thought to be on foreign soil, how many people in that country’s police–and military–would be searching for the lad? I’m suggesting it would be no less than the quest to find Bin Laden right after 9/11. So it’s important to sometimes “size” a character(s) so the plot doesn’t appear too large for any storyline to handle.
Authenticity Is More Than Perception
Authenticity also means how scenes play out in the timeline in which the story was written. To this point, if an author is writing about the FBI or CIA or the NYPD, it’s important to understand the way these outfits operated in the “date” of the narrative. If writing a period piece, the technology must also fit. Cell phones can’t show up in 1975 any more than a commercial jet can be flying tourists from New York to Paris in 1955.
Check the “Facts”
And this means looking further than Wikipedia or the first link to the subject that’s provided by an Internet search engine. I’m not criticizing any particular sourcing medium, but anyone can post on Wikipedia, as it’s really nothing more than a sophisticated blog. And while Wikipedia can be a fine starting point, I strongly suggest checking with reputable encyclopedias and other sources that pertain directly to the subject. When I do research for my own material, I commonly make phone calls. For example, about 20 years ago I called Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut to make certain a helicopter I cited in a story was in fact deployed in 1960, which was the time of my narrative. I learned it wasn’t in operation until the following year. Perhaps not a big deal, but the sort of thing savvy readers of military thrillers pay attention to, and my book fit that category to a tee.
For that same story, I called the State Department in D.C. to find out what the lobby in the building looked like in 1960. It required a few phone transfers, but I was put in touch with a woman who was a receptionist in 1960 (I also learned the building was under major renovation). In the overall scheme of things, the barren walls and bank of elevators on the left meant nothing to my story, but I felt good about describing the scene as it would’ve appeared to someone entering the dual set of doors to the building on C Street at that time in our history.
Authenticity adds to the richness of a tale, and while the correct helicopter appearing in a particular time frame might never sell a story to a publisher on its own, a lack of accuracy can certainly keep a book from being accepted by knowledgeable readers. And that does matter.
Robert L. Bacon, Founder
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