How much does it matter that a character is authentic? In this day and age, when family and friends load up an indie author's book page with glowing reviews, as a means of luring in buyers, it matters more than you think.
I recently download a book I thought had tremendous potential. The cover was perfection, in terms of drawing my attention. Who could resist a cute dog and the promise of a killer mystery? I kept reading. Best seller...hundreds of ratings and reviews...obviously a very popular book. How could it possibly fail to deliver?
Oh, let me count the ways. First, the author created a character who is a female lawyer. An unassertive, quiet, shy lawyer. Um, gee...Law School Rule of Thumb 101-- if you don't like to argue, don't be a lawyer. By training, lawyers are shaped to be bold, to hold their ground during a confrontation or conversation. It's really hard to get through law school without earning your boxing gloves. Why? Lawyers are persuaders who hammer their points home. It's their job to convince juries and judges that their version of a case is the only correct one. There is no room for doubt in a lawyer's mind, no wiggle room, once the argument is formed. Whether you're defense ("My client is innocent!") or offense ("The defendant is guilty!"), you're on a team and you're playing to win. It's not a career for the timid, the doubtful.
Second, the author made her character a failure without a cause. What forced her from her position in the DA's office, where she worked as an investigator on big cases? She was downsized. The unemployed lawyer is supposedly at her wits' end before she stumbles into a job offer from a old chum with fluctuating ethics So desperate is this legal eagle, she's ready to take a job in a dress shop to pay the bills....Um, I don't think so. With those skills, there are so many other jobs in related fields (private security/investigation firms, private corporations that go after fraud, like insurance companies, accounting firms, etc.). Even other judicial districts are likely to have job openings of one kind or another for an experienced prosecuting attorney able to navigate through an investigation. Why would she forgo the chance to work in her career field in favor of selling clothes? Does that make sense to you?
Reality check for the author -- you don't lose your reputation from being downsized. Unless you've committed some egregious faux pas, your reputation holds. The typical attorney will take umbrage at the slightest whiff of disrespect leveled at his or her reputation. What self-respecting lawyer would ever turn tail and run so quickly? Brings to mind that old phrase, "That dog don't hunt!" Attorneys are used to doing battle on a daily basis -- strategizing their next course of action, predicting what the opposing team will do, and counteracting those efforts before the other lawyers have a chance to do any real damage. And yet, this author expects us to belive this character wimpily bumps along, like she's got no choice but to throw herself across the train tracks because she lost her job. Lawyers are people with connections. They are trained to network their way through cases, to ferret out information, to get a foot in the door. Shop girl? Only in an inexperienced author's vision would a licensed lawyer trained in investigations go to work selling dresses.
But it got worse as I kept reading. This experienced investigator with a law degree and law license actually took a job without doing her due diligence. That's right. She never bothered to check on the dubious company, to make sure they were not in violation of the law, under investigation of any kind, or with a reputation that could cost her her law license. No well-trained legal eagle would ever jeopardize her right to practice law by signing on with a company that has a shady reputation. Background checks are always warranted if you value your career, for employer and employee.
So far, I've only talked about the legal aspects of the book, so you might be under the mistaken impression that this is just a matter of a good writer failing to do the research. But remember, this is not just a mystery, it's also supposed to be a romance. When she talks about another character getting all hot and bothered for a boyfriend, the grateful woman compares her partner's sexual arousal to that of a male deer. Or is that a male dear? Frankly, my darlings, it's a moot point. The fact is that unless you've spent any time in the wilderness, observing deer going at it, it's ridiculous to say that a man is anything like a buck. What made him buck-like? What stood out...er, um...made him so special? Talk about a trite cliche. Stallions, on the other hand, have long been symbolic as the untameable, wild beasts akin to men who are commitment-phobic and challenging, not just because they're powerful in the corral when a filly's in heat. We women try to train, domesticate, and harness all that raw energy and passion, as we saddle up that bucking bronco in our effort to control the romance. The horse symbolism works because it transcends different levels of dance between man and woman -- physical, mental, emotional. In this case, the lame buck stopped here, because the horny guy was really very ordinary. Nothing magnificent about his appendage or his sexual prowess.
That was not the only cliche running through the book. Take the bad guys. Superficial, money-grubbing, pretentious twits who long for the (Long Island) Hamptons while making do on the Connecticut shoreline. At a guess, I'd say the author hasn't really ever spent any time in either locale. She's probably watched "Royal Pains" and thinks she's capable of writing what passes for the lives of the Rich and Famous, without ever having smelled the air, shopped in the shops, or even taken the train to the station in her choice of playscape.
Rule Number One for any decent author is know your inspiration for your setting. How else can you ever keep the details straight? Every time I write a scene, I use my experience to fill in those details. What is it like in Bermuda..South Carolina...Vermont...Massachusetts...London....Even when I create a fictional town, I always have a real place that has inspired me, and my reason for creating a new locale is to allow me flexibility with my storyline or to obscure information on real criminal activity that took place. But I know of what I write, whether it's the terrain, the shops, or the people. Authenticity is incredibly important to a good story, because that's the flavor, the aroma wafting through the book's setting.
If you must write about a place you've never been, immerse yourself in information until you can picture every last image, every last step you force your character to make. Check out the local restaurant menus. What's hot in food trends? What's not? What's the best beach? Where's the nearest hospital and what can they treat or not treat? What do the houses look like? What does an apartment go for? Take a look at the street views of maps. Swim in those unknown waters before you write. It's not necessary for you to share every little snippet. What you really need to do most is picture yourself there, in that locale, so that when you do write, your voice is in sync with reality. That's how you build credibility for the imaginary.
One of the best examples I've read of an author really showing his talent for depicting local color was Greg Isles in "Dead Sleep". From the pronunciation of local slang to the gritty details of the weather, the architecture, and even the mindset of the residents, he brought the story to life by painting the characters with such authenticity, it was easy to get swept away. That's what a really seasoned author does -- he or she builds a solid story by attending to all the important details, creating a sensual experience for the reader that allows your imagination to take in all those details and form your own vision of the locale. A really good book transports you there, to the scene, lets you walk around and experience it for yourself, like an observer on holiday, and you don't have to worry about anyone going after you with a weapon.
But the author of the romantic suspense novel I was reading wasn't as talented as Mr. Isles. She made several more mistakes, and one of the biggest is one that just about every writer has committed at one point in time or another -- sharing too much about characters not yet introduced into the story. At one point, her main character, crossing a busy work space filled with men, somehow discerns the eye color of a man she's never met with some kind of amazing, super sight, even as the man waits hundreds of feet away. Is she somehow psychic or did the author forget to pay attention to the story continuity? Until the author and reader come face to face with a character for the first time, there is no way anyone can know how blue, brown, green, or hazel those eyes are. Discovery comes with action. That's how tension is built. That's how the story moves.
I'd like to tell you that those were the only glitches in the first half of the book, but I can't. Another whopper popped up. The supposed hero of the mystery is a government agent who used to be a criminal. Seriously? "Here's the thing," as Adrian Monk used to say. In order to be a full-fledged federal agent, you must undergo a background check, and being convicted of a serious crime usually rules you out as a badge-carrying good guy. Yes, it's possible that such a man might be enticed to work for the government in a related capacity, as an informant, possibly as a reformed "consultant", or even an undercover operative, but he would have a serious handler micro-managing the operation. Why? Two reasons. If the government plans to prosecute the criminal case, that man has to provide the right kind of evidence. You can't skirt the law because defense attorneys will have a field day tap dancing all over the prosecution. That means every action has to be monitored to develop the best evidence possible and to preserve it. Tainted information gets thrown out and wastes taxpayer money, which is in and of itself a crime (misuse of resources). Second, imagine if you will what happens when the defense attorneys find out that the man who has gathered all the evidence against their client is himself an admitted criminal. Whoo, boy! Talk about mistrial magic!
But there's more. How can he hold a gun permit with his criminal background? How can he have the necessary security clearance (top secret, at the very least) to conduct his federal investigations and work with his fellow agents? A full-fledged bona fide government agent always has these. An operative, informant, consultant, or other support team member does not.
Now does it become apparent as to why this mystery's scenario defies credibility? Consider the average cost of a federal trial. That money has to count for something at the end of the day. Everybody is accountable, and when there are cost overruns, that money gets pulled from other prosecutions, other investigations. There is no willy-nilly in real law enforcement. The Department of Justice isn't about to throw the book at a huge multi-million dollar investment company using a criminal who has issues with his own past. That character would have to be part of a much broader team, one that the prosecutors could have confidence in. If there's one thing that really irks prosecutors, it's investigators who leave them with egg on their faces. And when prosecutors get irked, watch out. They're going to want to take a chunk out of somebody....
What could the inexperienced author have done to improve her story? She could have actually studied the behavior of real lawyers, by spending time, asking questions, and absorbing the details of real law practices. Or she could have taken those same characters and that plot line, and tweaked it until it made sense, by dropping all the phony legalese and going with ordinary citizens caught up in a crime. Don't know how the law works, work around it. Maybe the reformed criminal hero has to fight to be heard when he discovers the illegal activities because the firm asks him to break the law again or tries to blackmail him into it. Sure, it looks good to have a swashbuckling, swoon-causing government agent on the job, but he can't be a criminal. Either make him a law-abiding guy or make him a criminal. Don't make him both.
And as for the heroine, why does she have to be a lawyer? So she can buy the fancy suits and have a bunch of guys wanting to pinch her fanny as she sashays by? Paralegal, client, unwitting witness to the crime....There are so many other ways to introduce a heroine to a dangerous situation. It's not necessary to give the character a career that is outside the scope of the author's experience, especially if the author isn't interested in doing the research. Write what you know. Write to your goal. Write mysteries that make sense.
As for the story, after reaching almost the halfway point and not seeing any real mystery or romance, I'm not about to waste any more time reading. I never did find anything connecting it to the cute dog on the book's cover. I never did find any characters I admired, respected, liked, or felt compassion for in any way, shape or form. This really was just a cheap means to collect money for a rambling tale that talks sexy, without delivering the climax. The author spends far too much time dressing the duds in designer duds, like they're all paper dollies. I would summarize the first half of the plot this way -- the lacking lawyer got a job, thanks to an old chum/rival, and met some new people at a new job. That's really all that happened. A horny woman's daydream of what it's like to be a lawyer and crime fighter, in a fantasy world. Readers deserve better than that, and as authors, we have a responsibility not to waste the time or money of people who want to be genuinely entertained. If you're serious about being an indie author, learn from this and write a tale of which ou can be proud. Be authentic.