On Writing What You Know

There are two ways this gets slung around.

“Write what you know.”

  • If you know it, you’ll write it well.
  • If you wrote it well, you know it.

Neither of those are true.

I’m speaking in the general, of course, but not everyone who writes well can write their own experiences well; and not everyone who writes something well is doing so because they’ve experienced it.

I’ve had problems with my audience on this issue, from both angles.  One camp assumes that something I wrote about is my experience, and brings those assumptions to the table when talking to me.  And the other camp knows what my experiences are, and uses them against me to insist that I couldn’t possibly write an experience unlike mine authentically (or that I don’t have the right to try).

First, sometimes readers connect very strongly to characters, and if you are able to make this experience possible for them, they sometimes assume that you are speaking from experience.  One of my examples is my character who is a mother even though I’ve never been a mother.  Readers of my webcomic connected to her and her story of pregnancy, birth, and child-raising, and when some of them wrote to me, they did so using phrases like “your children” or “when you were pregnant,” etc.  Some of them were astonished when I said I wasn’t writing my own experience at all.  The things the character felt and did just sounded appropriate based on who she was, so I wrote them.

Every one of my characters likes things I don’t like and wants things I don’t want.  Especially when it comes to romantic relationships—which I don’t pursue, but since it’s pretty unusual to not want a relationship, the majority of my characters have them or want them.  Despite not wanting them myself, I’m not clueless about the experience; nearly everyone I know has had it, so living in the world I do, I’ve noticed how people handle it and I’m able to depict fictional people’s relationships with confidence.  As long as their romantic feelings are shown as integrated with who they are—not tacked on as an afterthought, which is how some writers deal with experiences they’re not comfortable writing—it will still ring true.

What I bring to my writing is an understanding that I’m not putting myself in a character’s shoes.  Because that would be me walking around in their shoes, and it needs to be them in their shoes.  This is why “writing what you know” is always going to be influenced by how you know it, and while it’s valuable to bring your experiences to the table, it’s also important that you don’t write them as yours.  Unless you’re writing an autobiography.

Second, the obvious: I write a lot of science fiction and fantasy.  I do literally write about things that NO ONE has experienced, and some people feel that therefore those experiences are fair game.  But once an author decides to depict a realistic experience she has not had herself, she falls under the scrutiny of those who have actually had said experience, and if the fictional depiction is unlike the reader’s, the author might be accused of not knowing what she’s talking about.

The truth is, lived experience is the most valuable and most authentic way to understand what it’s like to do something.  But you do have to keep in mind that your experience doesn’t necessarily define the experience itself, and that if you have done it, you have done it as yourself.  You haven’t done it as someone else.  Or as a fictional character who might be coming from a completely different place than you are.  So the most important thing in writing a character whose experiences are unlike yours is whether it’s internally consistent.  Does the character seem like the kind of person who would feel this way or act this way, even if someone else who’s done the same things did not?  Have you written it in a way that makes it clear why the character experiences these things this way?  Then you’re doing fine.

So if someone tries to tell you that “Hey, I’m a downhill skier, and I’m not scared of the chair lift,” that is not therefore “proof” that you can’t make a downhill skier character who’s afraid of the chair lift.  If the downhill skier reader can’t relate to a character who’s afraid of the chair lift because they can’t separate their own experiences from how others’ experiences “should” be described, there’s not much you can do about it.

You’ll always have readers who think their experience defines reality or that your characters need to act/feel/perform like similar characters on the reader’s favorite TV show.  You should always listen, and definitely correct facts that are wrong in your work, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to write your characters as avatars of others’ experiences—any more than they should be clones of you inserted into the story to espouse your perspectives.  An audience will connect to any well-written character, even if her experiences are atypical (though you should probably know what’s typical if you’re going to do that).

If possible, it’s great to get a reader or two who can offer you insight to experiences you haven’t had.  My example would be the novel I wrote from a male perspective even though I’m female.  I asked the guys in my audience to help me make sure I handled his male voice authentically.  And I’ve received both helpful and not-so-helpful feedback on this.  Helpful feedback identifies lines, perspectives, and reactions that sounded odd either “for a guy” or “for the type of guy I was writing.”  Unhelpful feedback includes statements like “no guy would ever do this,” or “I can’t imagine doing X, I’d Y,” or any blanket statement that paints stereotypical men as the definition of men.  I’m not interested in making my male protagonist more realistic by grafting Guy Clichés onto him.

But people whose experience is closer to your character’s than yours is can often have very important insights.  They don’t get to decide how your character thinks or feels, especially if it makes sense in context, but having factual knowledge is a very important aspect of “writing what you know.”  If you DON’T know, you need help.  I remember seeing a book excerpt in a contest in which the author had written a Mexican criminal’s dialogue demanding “twenty thousand el dolars” as part of his supposedly broken English.  That person clearly needed a Spanish-speaker to tell him that that’s not how “el” is used and that “dolars” is not the Spanish spelling of “dollars.”  I remember reading a published book in which zombies were depicted as still needing to cut their hair and nails because “they grow after death.”  That person clearly needed a person with biological knowledge of some sort to tell the author that that’s a myth.  (You can have your zombies do whatever you want; you create the laws of physics in your fantasy world.  But don’t try to science it if you don’t know science.)

If it’s possible, it’s a good idea to do what your character does as a form of research, and doing so can only enhance your ability to describe it (though it doesn’t always work, since you’re doing it as you, and if you can’t write characters who aren’t you, then . . . well).  But doing it for yourself is not the only way to understand or explore an experience.  If your character skydives, it’s a very good idea to try it yourself if you want to describe it, but if you can’t or won’t, that doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from writing about it.  Just don’t do it with factual errors or misrepresentations of what skydiving is.

Here’s an example.  As an asexual person, I don’t like it when the media misrepresents asexual people.  This was done in one episode of House, M.D.; the doctor had an asexual patient and proposed that “anyone who doesn’t want sex is dead, dying, or lying.”  By the end of the episode, he’d proved that in a so-called asexual couple, one “asexual” patient had a pituitary tumor and the other “asexual” patient had been lying about not wanting it because she didn’t want her husband to feel like a disappointment.  Voilà!  Two asexual people debunked.  I found this offensive because the takeaway message was that people like me actually ARE “either dead, dying, or lying,” and the doctor reiterates this at the end of the episode.

However, if a fictional account of a questioning asexual person authentically led to her experimenting with sex, it wouldn’t bother me at all, even though I’d never do so. I wouldn’t take away the message that “asexual people just need to experiment and find their real sexuality.”  In context, if an asexual person does something I wouldn’t do, I don’t feel that I’m being invalidated since it doesn’t represent me.  As long as it’s sensitively, authentically written and the character’s desires make sense in context, I am not going to storm into the author’s story and demand that she make the asexual character more like me.  I love to see characters like myself, but that doesn’t mean I own the ones that are close, or that I am the boss of how asexuality should be written by anyone who tries.  I only find it problematic if it actually helps perpetuate lies.

And lastly: sometimes readers will ask whether an experience is yours, and if you say it is not, they will flat-out disbelieve you.  Or they will say that it represents your own wishes rather than the character’s.  (I’ve had this last problem probably more than any other with regards to writing about characters with romantic inclinations.)  Apparently if you do it well enough, people will insist that you cannot be doing it if it wasn’t in some way your beliefs, experiences, feelings, or thoughts you are describing.  The most infuriating feedback I’ve gotten involved being told that a character’s romantic longings are “really” an expression of my repressed ones, or that a character’s sexual exploits are “really” my attempt to live vicariously through desires I can’t admit I have.  No, no they’re not.  They are me writing someone who isn’t me.  That’s what writers do.

If we’re doing a good job at our art, please don’t insult us or cheapen what we do by suggesting we can’t be getting into our characters’ heads convincingly unless we’re just repeating what’s in our own heads.

If Jeffrey Eugenides can’t convincingly write about an intersex character without being asked “HEY, ARE YOU A HERMAPHRODITE?” in interviews, I shudder to think what the rest of us are facing, though I suppose it’s only natural to wonder how much of an author’s characters are their own thoughts.  But here are my takeaway points:

If you’re not the writer:

  • Don’t tell the writer what she’s allowed to write about.
  • Don’t tell the writer she’s doing it wrong if her depiction isn’t identical to your experience.
  • Don’t insist that the writer’s work must be autobiographical or that its convincingness is evidence for that being so.
  • Do offer fact-based corrections if you see mistakes.
  • Do offer your own experience as an alternate take on an experience if you suspect the author might be depicting it hollowly.
  • Do remember that your experiences do not make you the gatekeeper on What It Is Like, even if they’re valuable.

If you are the writer:

  • Don’t refuse to listen to readers who are offering their advice just because it is critical.
  • Don’t assume that you have to “fix” your writing in the way the reader says you do; they’re often right about something being wrong, but not often right about how it should be fixed.
  • Don’t avoid subjects you want to explore because someone thinks you need permission or personal experience to be “allowed.”
  • Do understand that people who aren’t writers probably don’t know what it’s like to write about being a person who isn’t yourself, so they’re bound to have some misconceptions.
  • Do pursue research in the form of gathering experiences and asking knowledgeable people to critique your work.
  • Do avoid shameless self-inserts.  Again, unless you’re writing an autobiography.

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