Many people have probably run into this well-meaning piece of advice during their lifetime, writers or not. It was in all of my creative writing classes in school. On the surface, it’s a good idea. It avoids any messy misconceptions or mistakes when writing people from a different background, and it still allows for wide interpretation.
But the problem is that writing isn’t simply a matter of pick-n-pulling the pieces of a character that you like. Blonde hair, purple skin, pale blue eyes… No, no, no. Unless the story takes place on an alien planet, then whatever. But that’s a very specific situation where weirdness, from our point of view, is justified.
At the very least, I’ve never had it like that. If I ever meet a writer who can just create characters from scratch the way you do in the Sims games, I want to know how they do it. The characters that I write sort of just come to me already set-up, like annoying ghosts that look over my shoulder and check to make sure I’m writing them correctly. They’re the written equivalent of backseat drivers. They’ve already got their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. What they love about certain people, and what they hate about others. They might change slightly over the story’s evolution, but they’re ultimately the same people at heart.
They’re not all like me, however. It’s kinda obvious when one of my main characters has albinism and another is a man. Even the redheaded writer character — sound familiar? — is a rich man’s wife and way, way nicer than I think any real person could possibly be. So that’s still not writing what I know.
I’ll be honest: I’m boring. I’m not fishing for compliments or pity or anything like that; it’s just a fact. I know a lot of people who don’t write like to think that we all have this super glamorous job where we tour around Europe stopping into little cafés and coffee shops, tapping on a laptop keyboard and enjoying the mountain air…
Nope. I spend at least 70% of my time at home. Now, I do like my house, so that’s good. But I tend to go a little stir-crazy. If I tried to write that, I’d be bored in a few minutes, never mind what the reader’s feeling.
And it’s hard for a story to take place inside the main character’s home. Unless it’s a really old, really fancy mansion with some hidden passages, but that wouldn’t be my experience so it still technically wouldn’t be “writing what I know.”
See the dilemma?
Unless you’re a world leader, an explorer, or an astronaut, people probably don’t want to know about your every day life. “Write what you know” is worthless advice for the majority of the human race.
Admittedly, it might be interesting to people living in vastly different countries than your own, to see how people in your country live. But that’s a topic for another day, and it’s not my genre anyway.
Back to the “write what you know” myth: I’ll give you an example. I sincerely doubt JK Rowling is a witch. Didn’t stop her from creating a whole magical world that people all over the world love and enjoy to this day.
And props to her for writing a pretty believable male main character. Harry Potter is neither a whimpering, helpless fool, nor some kind of unstoppable Schwarzenegger killing machine like half the men I wrote the first time I tried to write a man. He’s balanced — human.
I shied away from writing men and boys for so long… My first male character sucked, and I’m not afraid to admit it. But I got over it, and now I can write my male main character confidently. It’s not really any different from writing a woman, albeit that men tend to have shorter hair and less willingness to talk about their problems.
My point is that people don’t want to read about “life.” If you want to read about just plain old life, find a newspaper. Or a news website. Or even just talk to the little old lady across the street. She probably knows what’s going on. Or if you’re really in the mood for fiction, look in the literary section. But, surprise surprise, most of those books bore me to tears.
People want to read what’s exciting. I have yet to see a single young-adult novel set in a school, where the characters actually enjoy school. And I mean the main characters, the “cool” characters; not just the nerdy guy. Because, really, even if you had a good time in school, chances are that you don’t want to repeat it.
I know I don’t.
Romance is the most popular genre, and I seriously doubt that all the romance writers out there based their books around their real-life relationship with their real-life significant other. Unless Stephenie Meyer really is dating an eternally 17-year-old vampire on the side, behind her husband’s back. In which case… uh, yay for cheating on the hubby?
“Write what you know” limits the writer, limits points of view, limits our understandings of other people and viewpoints. Whoever came up with it most likely meant well. Probably wanted to help keep things simple and limit the amount of research a writer would have to do. After all, before the internet, research was a chore. I mean, it still is *grimace*, but it was even more of one back then.
I don’t think it’s necessary anymore. I don’t think that people should take what they see in books/movies/TV shows as accurate representations of whatever race/class/culture they’re looking at, because said books/movies/TV might have also gotten it wrong. But research and genuine appreciation for whatever you’re writing, and writing it to the best of your ability?
I know that you don’t need as much research when you’re writing about something you’re familiar with. I could probably set a story in western Washington with no problems, because guess what? I’m from here — I know the area. I’m not going to, at least not right this moment. But I could.
That’s one good thing about fictional settings (mentioned elsewhere on my blog here). You don’t exactly need to research a setting you made up, and made-up cultures and interactions mean that real-world prejudices don’t apply.
Ultimately, though, it’s about keeping the story as true as possible. Like all other art, a novel has to be written the way it was meant to be written. I do, however, think that stories are better when the people in them are written well. Because that’s just called artistic integrity. Like academic integrity, but artistic. You wouldn’t paint some six-headed purple blob-thing and then try to sell it as someone’s portrait, would you?