03/05/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

How I Found Authenticity in My Writing, Without Becoming a Secret Agent

For the past five years, I've been pursuing my goal of becoming an author and am continuing to work on an action adventure/science fiction novel. During my writer's journey, I've come across an interesting question that I think every writer (and non-writer) can relate to: what makes something or someone authentic? This comes up most commonly for people when determining if a person is being honest. They look that person right in the eyes and wait to see if he or she maintains eye contact or looks away as the guilt eats them up inside. From an author's perspective, I think of this in terms of my characters, the lives they live, and what they say. Is my character's dialogue looking me straight in the eye or is it staring off to the side, hoping it can pass off as something that sounds real?

For writers of memoirs or anything relating to something they've experienced, I'd think problems like these would be pretty easy to solve. If you can recall that specific moment of your life and channel it while you're writing your piece, hopefully the tears from your eyes or the wave of nausea that passes over you is a sure indicator that what's getting typed will connect with those who are reading your work. For me, on the other hand, the situation is a little different. The main character in my novel is a secret agent who works for the government and fights armed criminals on a daily basis. As a student immersed in a Quaker school atmosphere that's grounded in non-violent beliefs, you can imagine the struggles I go through when writing a story that definitely doesn't come from personal experience.

So then how do I determine whether what I'm writing is authentic? When a teacher first asked me this, my immediate response was, "I don't know." And the fact of the matter is, I don't think there's one true answer to this question. I don't know what it feels like to be under gunfire (counting my lucky stars that I never will) and quite frankly, not every writer who writes about the experience has been either. But there is something that every human being has experienced (or so I would hope): fear. Every emotion comes at different intensities and no matter the difference in how strong we've felt them, everyone has experienced sadness, jealousy, joy, friction, etc. Although I haven't been in half the situations my characters have (here, I'm cuing the actors/actresses), I focus on their emotions, the closest thing to them I can relate to, when writing the intense action scenes. Not only that, but I look to other authors and the ways they've found it best to interpret various scenes. A little research never hurt anyone.

In summary, I believe authenticity comes from within the writer. You can make your characters bawl their eyes out, but they won't truly be sad unless you believe they really are. If you want them to be nervous, think of your first interview or getting your scores back on a big test. If you want them to be full of adrenaline, think of what it's like to be on a roller coaster ride and doing something you know you might get in trouble for. Only when you feel what you want to express can it come out in your writing. And believe it or not, your emotions show through in your work; the reader can tell. Staying true to yourself is the way you stay authentic.

How have you found authenticity in your writing?