Use What You Know To Write What You Don’t

The same can be said for other details, such as the occupation of your characters. My favorite books are those in which the occupation of the characters shines through. For example, a carpenter is going to speak differently and see the world differently than an artist or a doctor or a school teacher. If you’re a school teacher, you obviously don’t want all your characters to be teachers, but you’ll probably find a richness there that you won’t elsewhere. The minor details of their routines, the way they think about things or address problems, the vocabulary they use–all of those tiny elements will come together if you write what you know.

But that doesn’t mean you always have to limit yourself. When you don’t know something, research: read books, blogs and magazines; watch documentaries and films with similar subject matter; conduct interviews and ask friends. Make what you don’t know something you do. One thing I really love about the Peter Grant books (starting with Midnight Riot) is it’s obvious Ben Aaaronovitch knows a lot about the way police officers think and how the Met works. It makes Peter more real and more believable, and adds a richness to the books that you don’t find in most stories featuring police officers.

I do a lot of research for all my books, especially since I prefer to feature characters with disabilities. Sometimes this involves very specific things, such as reading medical literature about a particular disease, or talking to experts in the medical and engineering fields about what types of accidents cause which kinds of injuries. Sometimes, it’s reading personal accounts of people with a particular disease or illness, or talking to them to learn the personal side of things. And sometimes, it’s more general: speaking to people with various disabilities about their life experiences, their perspectives on life, etc. Then I’m able to combine what I know from my own life (such as growing up in a traditional Latin household, being raised in the Catholic Church, being a child of immigrants, dealing with my own chronic illness, etc.) and amalgamate all of these things to create realistic, believable characters.

This is what you should strive for as a writer, too. If you’re a 25-year-old white girl from Ohio who’s never been married, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a story about a 40-year-old man from California who’s married with three kids. It’ll be harder, of course, and you’ll have to do your research and seek out advice (and hopefully find good beta readers!), but it can be done.

Which brings me back to my original question: can one write the opposite sex well? Yes, of course you can. The key is to use the same strategy you would for writing anything that is outside your personal experience: use your familiarity with the people in your life, your own experiences, and a little research (as necessary), and don’t forget to make sure you have people you trust read your work and give you honest feedback as to whether the character is working or not, same as you would even if the character was your same sex. Newsflash: plenty of men write bad male characters and plenty of women write bad female characters! Being of a particular sex doesn’t automatically make you a master of that sex.

And most importantly, remember: all people are different. There are no universals. Yes, you can say “most” people of a certain sex or group or occupation will think or act in a particular way, but that’s not necessarily true. The important thing is to be consistent to your character. Just because most people in a certain situation might not act the way he or she does in that same predicament, as long as it’s consistent with who the reader has come to believe that person to be, you’re doing things right.

Ultimately, my best advice is to keep a few things familiar, such as the setting, perhaps some cultural aspects that you know well, or the occupation of the main character, and then let the story grow from there into the challenge of the unfamiliar. If you build on a foundation of experience, you’re free to explore the realm of imagination.

This entry was posted in Writing Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *