Write who you know

We all know the old adage to write what you know. We also all know the tension involved in that adage. Does a writer need to go out and “experience life” before they are able to write about it? If you write sci fi, how many flights into space or traveling back in time are required before you can begin your next book? There is truth in the maxim, but only to a point. The imagination can fill in quite a lot, but again, that’s only to a point too. What the writer needs to know in such cases are the broad patterns of human relationships, the structure of interactions between humans and their machines (or nonhumans – though here speculation comes to the fore again), and a smattering of details related to the more specific content they wish to relate to the reader. Where I think this truism is more interesting is in its relation to characters.

We can query this here in the same way: If a writer wants to have a character who is a junky does she need to give heroin a go a few times just to get the gist of it? I don’t think I’d recommend that but if she knows someone who has been in that situation it will undoubtedly give her writing an edge and depth that it wouldn’t have otherwise. In a sense, then, if we wish to write characters that are reflective of the remarkable complexity that people demonstrate we will be limited somewhat by the constraints that exist in our own lives. Realizing this can help provide some useful guidelines when engaged in a project and the process of building the characters that inhabit its world.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was starting a new fiction undertaking, and after many hours of planning and plotting some rough structural elements (both of which will surely continue as the story progresses and surprises me with some of the developments that take place inside it) I punched out the first few words yesterday. It felt great. Daunting, but great. Personally I like to keep things at the outset rather loose so my outlines leave lots of room for change but I did sketch out the primary characters. Well, all of them but the actual main character. For him I only have the tentative idea of taking things from myself.

This is nothing new. When I was in Seoul a few years back visiting our own illustrious Paul j Rogers I remember going to a bookstore with him to get something for the upcoming bus ride on my way back (from the Osaka airport to where I was living at the time, about a five hour journey). He pointed out The Da Vinci Code as a page-turning time-passer and it certainly was that. I looked up Dan Brown when I got home and quickly found a big picture of him. He was the image of his main character, sporting that trademark tweed jacket and all. Now, looking like your main character and being like your main character are of course two different things (and I have my doubts as to how many helicopters Dan Brown has jumped out of), but the modelling involved seems clear. I’ve also been told that Hermann Hesse only wrote about himself, and a number of others stand out in my mind along the same lines (Kurt Vonnegut quite vividly). Is there anything wrong with this? I don’t think so, and if we are honest with ourselves we’ll find all sorts of characters bubbling up from within our own person; some gallant heroes and some nefarious ne’er do wells, along with quite a few middling gray types. In my own case, with what I’m working on at present, I’m not sure how this will play out but it seems like a good place to begin. After all, if your main character’s head is your head, it’ll be much easier to get inside it. We’ll see how it goes.

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3 Comments

  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted November 30, 2015 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    First up, you’re a blogging machine. That’s at least three weeks on the spin!

    Characters are interesting stuff – perhaps the most important part of fiction. I remember one teacher, or professor, I don’t remember which, referring to them as ‘metaphors for ideas’. If you accept this premise then your characters will be operating within a core set of behaviours, behaviours that perhaps normal, real people wouldn’t exhibit, at least with such intensity and consistency. The story that said characters are dropped into is then designed to test their strengths and weaknesses, with plenty of scope for growth in different directions. I guess this is at the heart of the maxim that character and story are two sides of the same coin.

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted November 30, 2015 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    I was hoping you’d share some pearls of wisdom and you didn’t disappoint. Thanks! Both the notion of characters as “metaphors for ideas” and its subset of behavioral/emotional intensity as their story-world unfolds within and around them will be excellent to keep in mind.

  3. Paul j Rogers
    Posted December 3, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Another point about characters is that (while creating them) it’s good to ask yourself what is special about this character. They don’t have to have a cape or magic suit, but they must at least have something in their psyche that sets them apart from everybody else. This could be a negative or positive trait or both.

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