Readers are looking for an authentic experience, but unless most books are autobiographical, this would severely limit the rich, creative landscape of literature. Few of us have flown a jet plane to the edge of space, nor witnessed the murder of a loved one in war, but if the author writes about it, we trust this experience to be authentic. When I see comments where readers are baffled by the ‘voice’ of my character, I begin to wonder—why does a youthful college student speak in vernacular? Because, the protagonist is a youthful college student! Writing in another way would be jarring for me and, frankly, unconvincing. This answer seems obvious to me, but maybe it’s because I’ve read too many characters who sound wise and experienced beyond their years, not to mention who use jargon that does not fit their supposed generation or subcultural context. Of course, high emotional intelligence does exist, as my 13-year old never ceases to amaze me. But speech changes, vernacular, dialects and slang move with time and people use different terms to voice expressions that seem current today and archaic tomorrow.
I try to write in character, I immerse myself in the person’s head and feel and think like I imagine they would do. It continues to amaze me that some readers expect to see the protagonist act with greater wisdom, more life experience or insight than they should have given the character’s circumstances and background. While I don’t deny the existence of highly sensible, very intuitive characters, it seems natural to me that writing closer to the sensibilities and language of a generation makes the story more immersive. In fact, the opposite is true, writing anachronistically sets up a peculiar estrangement that I sometimes use to purposely distance the reader from my protagonist (Angelic vampires from outer-space, anyone?).
That being said, the world, setting and voices may be fictitious but what’s real are the emotions — no matter your age or gender identity, emotions should be genuine in books. The pain of loss of a loved one, the heartache of a breakup, the joy of loving someone, fear, anger or even hatred — they are real and they are felt across the boundaries of time, cultures, ages and peoples. You may never have felt the true pangs of starvation but you can, undeniably, experience pain and anguish. A writer must convey that and to do this, like shamans, we don the skins of others and walk in their steps. We may apply dialects, slang or vernacular to make the reading experience more immersive but in the end, we are lending voices to fictitious characters who experience emotions no less or different than yours or mine. It’s our capacity for empathy that makes us not just writers but deeply human and I think that makes our world a kinder and more compassionate place.