Writers are not infrequently given advice that goes a little something like this: “Write what you know.” This piece of advice typically suggests writing about topics you are moderately to expertly knowledgeable of. If you don’t know what an atom is, you shouldn’t be writing science fiction. If you’ve never experienced deep hurt or great love, it might be difficult for you to write realistic or relatable fiction based in either of those topics. For example, I once wrote a romantic story of a single father who falls in love with the single and cancer-recovering mother who happens to be a favorite person of his daughter; meanwhile, the daughter meets and begins to fall for the son of the woman. All this happens in the midst of the turmoil of one family’s struggle to deal with the loss of a family member and divorce, and the other family’s battle with the broken relationship between mother and son. I had a teacher read parts of the story. Her comments made the “Write what you know” advice all the more potent to me. “It’s okay,” she told me, “but you can’t possibly really know what you’re talking about.” To this trusted advisor, the most realistic portions of the narrative were the young girl’s journal entry interjections into the story’s plotline. Her journal entries were actually snippets from my own journals.
To only be limited to writing about what you know, however, can feel like quite the unbreakable boundary when it comes to experimenting with the art of fiction. In this examination of “writing what you know,” we won’t look so much at basing your entire work on your own personal knowledge. Rather, let’s look at how taking close looks at some of your personal experiences can help when it comes to developing your characters’ backgrounds. In this instance, writing what you know relates more to your character’s experiences than to your narrative’s framework. You may be working on the next best thriller, but if your character has no substance he or she will invariably begin to bog down your narrative with his or her flatness. To avoid such flatness of character, try experimenting with engaging your own past experiences and memories-and perhaps even those of others who are open to having their experiences dramatized by you-by allowing your characters to “borrow” them as their own.
The best way to incorporate your experiences or the experiences of others into your work is to know exactly what kind of experience your character needs to endure. Say, for instance, your character has just been terribly embarrassed and has a strange reaction he or she must explain to another character. First, you will want to have a “catalogue” of embarrassing experiences to choose from; in this case, you’ll want these embarrassing moments to have had strange reactions. Let’s say you have a friend who shares with you the story of a time in sixth grade when he was mocked by his classmates; in order to avoid seeming entirely embarrassed by the incident, he chose to make a joke of it by singing the chorus of “Everybody Plays a Fool.” In this case, you might have the character, after his most recent embarrassing moment, murmur “Everybody plays a fool . . . sometimes” in the presence of another character. This allows the second character to inquire as to why those words came to your main character’s mind; this inquiry can lead directly into your main character’s flash back to that moment in sixth grade.
The benefit of using your own experiences as the experiences of your characters is in creating realistic and relatable back stories to drive the development of your character as a person who seems real to your audience. It also saves you the hassle of having to come up with experiences for your character off the top of your head. Using a few rehashed versions of your own experiences allows you to get closer to your main character without necessarily feeling as though the character is you. Using your experiences also allows you to have fun recalling your own memories and experiences while at the same time sharing them with your audience without your fiction being reduced to an autobiographical piece. In many ways, such use of personal moments will make your work autobiographical to a certain extent; yet even Shakespeare implanted parts of himself into his characters-like Prospero in The Tempest-without the story becoming overtly self-concerned. Your experiences benefit your character in a very major, almost essential manner: it gives your character depth.
Sometimes, using the shared experiences of others may prove more helpful than trying to use your own experiences. For example, let’s say your main character is based on several good friends you’ve had over the years. In such a case, your own experiences might not carry much weight in the development of your character; in fact, many of your own experiences may have been much different had the person or people your character is based on had them. In these cases, using the experiences of your friends and acquaintances would prove far more helpful. However, it also involves tact and responsibility on your part as the author. A writer should never use the personal experiences of another unless certain that it wouldn’t cause personal problems or turmoil for the person referenced, particularly if those moments were related in confidence. For instance, let’s say you want your character to have a drug related incident, and you happen to recall a story from a friend about a time when they were caught high. However, if your friend shared this story with you in confidence, or is ashamed of the incident, it would be wise not to use the experience without their permission. You may try to hide the real person’s identity in your recreation of their experiences, but you may also be very surprised to see how easily friends and family recognize themselves in your work.
Using your own experiences is also not limited to experiences you had in the past. Sometimes, the best way to come to an understanding of how your main character will react in a particular scenario is to put yourself in his or her shoes. Let’s say your main character is faced with a personal dilemma and must make a very difficult choice. What would you do to decide what your next course of action would be in that scenario? Who might you consult, and who would you absolutely avoid talking to? Where would you go to figure things out? Small details like this will likewise help to make the experience faced by your character more realistic. In these instances, it becomes vital that you are honest with both yourself and your audience. Don’t try to make yourself feel like a braver or wiser person than you think you might actually be in a particular situation; if your solution to a pressure situation is to tuck tail and run, perhaps that would be the best course of action for your character. There’s no need to be ashamed of feeling you might make the wrong choice in a given situation; in any case, trying to make yourself sound more heroic in such a situation will only make your character’s reaction seem all the more fabricated. At the same time, you don’t want to insult your audience by trying to convince them to believe your character is Mr. Exemplary when in fact he is more of a Mr. Wants-to-do-good-but-is-too-scared-to-half-the-time.
The same sort of method may be used in creating dialogue for your characters, with the added fun of being able to engage friends in your characters’ conversation to make the banter all the more realistic. Particularly if you relate well to one character and your friend relates well to the other, you may find yourself unexpectedly inspired. For example, in a recent story, a somewhat naïve young character, Peter, has an argument with his aggressive, somewhat evil future self. At this point in the story, I was growing more interested in the future self than my current main character and related to him much more. I had been discussing the story with a good friend who reminded me a great deal of Peter in many ways. Before writing the scene where Peter and his future self have this argument, I talked it over with this friend; our conversation wound up becoming the same conversation Peter has, almost verbatim. It came as a great surprise to me to discover myself growing very angry when my friend, as “Peter”, confronted “me” with holes in my logic; I was also surprised by how easily I took on the role of this somewhat despicable future self. These revelations helped to develop the character of the future self, as well as helped give me a better understanding of why Peter was who he was. To be honest, I wanted to cut the story off to get rid of the increasingly bothersome present-Peter until that moment, when my friend helped remind me of why I loved Peter so much. Granted, your experience with putting yourself in the shoes of your character may not be quite as literal as this instance, but even smaller forms of this personal engagement with your characters’ experiences will help develop a better understanding of who your characters are and what makes them that way. In conclusion, there are a few “rules” to the engagement of personal experiences in your fiction. First, be honest with the experience; whether you develop the experience through your own perspective or borrow from your past experiences, try to make reactions as pure to the reality as possible to avoid creating unbelievable fabrications. Second, when using the experiences of others, always be sure you have those people’s permission to use them! No work of fiction is worth offending a friend or loved one for the sake of a more realistic experience for a character. Third and finally, don’t be afraid to really “get into it”; if walking a mile in your character’s shoes means literally living out his or her experience, live it out (as long as it’s legal)! Engaging your characters as real personalities is a great way to get to know who they are. And, in the end, who knows what you may learn about yourself from these experiences!