Use What You Know To Write What You Don’t

I get into this discussion a lot with my writer friends: can men write good female characters and can women write good male characters?

Even though UnConventional is written from the female protagonist’s POV, I actually usually prefer to write male characters. Always have, as long as I can remember. And I’ve spoken to some male writer friends who are the reverse–they prefer to write women.

But to go back to my initial question: is it possible to write the opposite sex well?

The answer is–despite what some may say–a resounding “yes.” Of course, not everyone can do so. For example, I’m a big fan of the Dresden Files series, and while I applaud Jim Butcher for his fantastic world building and incredible knack for a killer action scene (of which I’ll admit to being pretty envious of), I think it’s fairly universal that when it comes to writing women . . . eh, not so much. It’s actually one thing the series is often criticized for, and while it doesn’t bother me enough to discount the fun of Harry’s adventures, it is probably a good idea that he sticks to a male POV.

Likewise, I’ve read a lot of M/M fiction, both written by men and women, and there are definitely plenty of cases of “chicks with dicks” in which the female author writes the male characters as if they were women instead of men. While it’s never good to generalize, let’s face it: women and men don’t think the same way. Honestly, it’s one reason I like writing from the male perspective so much, because it’s a challenge, and it’s different, and it forces me to constantly be on my toes and think outside myself (especially during revision!).

For this year’s NaNoWriMo, I decided to challenge myself and do something different and tackle an M/M myself. I’ve had to put that project on temporary hold, but it’s still definitely something I want to try because it is exactly that–a challenge. Especially if I want to do both guys’ POVs, and especially if I want to try to do both in first-person (ironically, I usually prefer third).

But all this got me thinking about the old writer’s adage: “Write what you know.” It’s a phrase you’ll hear over and over in any beginning creative writing class, and the reason is that it’s really good advice. It can become painfully obvious when a writer isn’t familiar with a place or culture or occupation or whatever. In fact, one of my personal pet peeves is reading a book in which the location is super vague or details are just wrong because it’s obvious the writer has never actually been there (or isn’t really familiar with the locale). One example was a paranormal book series that was set in Houston, but it was painful how little the author knew of the city. Houston is HUGE, spread over an enormous area, and has a network of highways and expressways and tollways that make the map look like a circulatory system of some strange creature. Yet this book merely said they “got on the highway.” Which highway? We’ve got dozens! (I was particularly frustrated by this since all it would have taken was a few minutes of research with our good friend Google maps.)

The problem that happens in a case like this is you can immediately lose your reader, because they won’t trust you anymore: “This author doesn’t know what they’re talking about!” they say in regards to one thing (such as the locale), and suddenly they start doubting everything else about the book–or, in particularly egregious examples, put the book down completely.

Writing what you know can add a richness to your fiction that won’t be there otherwise. So, for example, use your hometown as the setting. To pick on the Dresden Files again, part of what makes those books so good is the fact that Harry knows his town, Chicago, and Butcher obviously does, too. It gives the book a well grounded setting, which is great since there’s a lot of fantastical elements as well.

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