Don’t Write What You Know

If you haven’t read Robert Boswell’s, THE HALF-KNOWN WORLD, do yourself a favor a go pick it up right now.

No really. Go!

Got it? Great. Now we can have a real discussion.

One of my favorite lines in Boswell’s story is this: “By refusing to fully know the world, I hope to discover unusual formations in the landscape, and strange desires in the characters.”

Invariably, our stories are shaped by our lives. There is no way around that because our perceptions of the real world affect the way we build our fictitious ones. BUT, as writers we need to be careful about limiting our character growth by attaching too much real world value to who they are. The same goes for story and dialogue.

Characters are to a writer, what children are to their parents. They are born of us, guided by us, and when they come of age we are required to let them go. Giving characters the freedom to be wrong, is half of what makes them intricate, fascinating, true-to-life, people that readers connect to, engage with, and ultimately come to love.

For me, one of the most challenging aspects of writing involves the creation of character flaws. As a perfect human being myself, it’s hard for me to relate to people who don’t have lots of money, super white teeth, perfect hair, and a job so fun that it makes Disneyland look like Alcatraz (when it was still functioning). I kid, I kid, but in all honesty, who wants to get into the mind of  a narcissistic, self-righteous, schizophrenic billionaire who half the time runs Google and the other half of the time murders people out of impulse, and then have to stick by him for six or seven years while his story unfolds? Not me. However; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to read that story. Faults in our characters bring them life, they take two-dimensional ideas and formulate three-dimensional quirky people. Anthony C. Lanni wrote a post recently on how to create engaging characters so check it out if you need more ideas.

As for plot, I can’t tell you the number of times an editor has said to me (and I have said to others), “This doesn’t seem real,” only to be given the response, “But it happened to me!”

Sigh. There is no easy way to say this, except, “It doesn’t matter.” Coincidences work in real life, but they fall flat in fiction. Just because something really happened to you in real life, does not mean that it gets to happen in your story (unless you’re writing a memoir, in which case, I apologize for the terrible things that have occurred in your life.)

Creating realistic characters does not mean pulling every interesting scene from your own life and tossing them into a three-act structure. Just because you one day, tripped on your rollerblade, tumbled down forty steps, landed in the middle of a bike lane, were hit by two bicyclists and caused a thirty bike pile up doesn’t mean you can place this scenario into a dramatic World War II story about a girl running from the Nazi’s and have it work.

Pull ideas from the world around you, write them down on notecards, pin them to your walls, use them to motivate you or inspire character ideas, but don’t let them limit who your characters will become. Don’t write what you know, let what you know inform your ideas, and then give your characters the freedom to be whoever they want.

Then, when you’ve conjured up a unique character/plot write it down and paste it to your wall next to your computer so that when you start writing you are reminded of who your characters are and stay true to them as characters separate from the writer.



Filed under The Writer's Life, The Written Word

3 responses to “Don’t Write What You Know

  1. Love this post! Definitely a good reminder that “But it happened to me!” shouldn’t stop us from writing a really good story.

  2. Cyn Bermudez

    Great post, Jamie! 🙂

  3. Awesome point, Jamie. I’m reminded of something someone said at the Writer’s Digest conference. A lot of times I get responses to my characters–“But nobody would actually do this.” That’s not the response we should be having, but “Would THIS character do this?” After all, everyone is different!

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