A successful writer friend once went tiradical on me when I mentioned the literary admonition, “Write what you know.”
“I hate that!” she shouted.
“It restricts you! What if you want to write about something you’ve never experienced?”
Interestingly, that very week I’d invented a two-storey tall talking bird named Aviar for my fantasy novel The Wishing Map. I confess, I have never personally known any two-storey tall talking birds. But I did know my father-in-law, an irascibly lovable, salt-of-the-earth Arkansan. And he was the model for Aviar. When my wife read the passage, she said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Dad.”
What my normally insightful writer friend seemed to have missed was this: “Write what you know” doesn’t mean “restrict yourself to direct experience.” It means: write the underlying truths you’ve observed about people, their quirks, motives, fears, hopes. You can invent the window dressing (giant talking bird, Viking warrior, alien overlord), but base what shows through that window on your personal experiences. This includes milieu: Have you ever felt awkward at a social event? Use that to describe your beggar hero’s feelings in the court of Kublai Khan.
And don’t forget nuances: Purely invented characters are never as nuanced and quirky as real people—so steal and adapt! Use real people as sources for your characters’ vocabularies and syntax, habits and mannerisms.
Also, even when you base your major characters upon people you know (a good thing), inject a little of yourself into them. It will make them real. Because you are the realest person you know. And your personal investment in your characters (yes, even the evil ones) is what breathes life into them.
An acting teacher named Richard Boleslavsky once had a terrified actress come to him for help. She’d been cast in the role of a cold-blooded murderer, and felt there was no way she could bring the character to life. So Boleslavsky asked her if she’d ever been kept awake on a sweltering summer night by blood-hunting mosquitoes.
“Oh, yes!” she replied.
“Good. And what did you do about it?”
She went on to describe how she’d cold-bloodedly plotted each mosquito’s demise. And then it clicked.
Her performance in the play, Boleslavsky reports, was chillingly perfect.
So write what your mind knows. And what your heart knows.
And invent the rest.