The first writing advice I ever got is probably the same that most budding, eighteen year old authors get:
Write what you know.
For ages I did. I wrote what I knew in the strictest sense. I wrote about teenage pain first heartbreaks. As I grew older, I wrote about failed relationships and various what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-with-my-life fears. These stories were almost always told from a female POV, with the vast majority of my protagonists being either bi or straight, in their twenties and predominantly white. I was writing what I knew. Needless to say, what I knew wasn’t much.
The first time I broke out of that box was with a story called “Resurrection”. Though I’d always shied away from writing from the male point of view (because what the hell did I know about being a guy?), I drafted “Resurrection” without thinking about it. It was only as I was editing that I realized I’d made the male protagonist the POV character. I remember wondering if I should switch to the woman’s point of view, but I dismissed that pretty quickly. The major arc was his and the narration had to reflect that, so I left the point of view the way it was. That’s when I started to reframe the idea of writing what I know.
Up to that point, I’d been pretty literal about that advice, meaning that I’d limited myself to writing about things I was concretely familiar with – academia, acting, being a white, middle-class woman in the States (etc, etc). Those are all fairly tangible things. What I hadn’t considered was writing about what I knew from in the more abstract emotional / psychological sense.
For example, experientially speaking, the protagonist in “Resurrection” and I have very little in common. I’m not a male ex-POW. I’ve never been to war. I’ve never buried my best friend, or been subjected to torture, or assumed I would die. I have however, shut down emotionally and sexually due to damage, and I have woken back up again. So, in a very real way, I had written what I knew – I knew his psychological and emotional state, though he’d acquired it through experiences very different from my own. I’d written him by falling back on empathy to bridge the gap.
Understanding that opened up a lot of possibilities because I realized I could relate to my characters as human beings, rather than as women (or men) with experiential markers that exactly mirrored mine. That said, it’s important to remind myself that empathy isn’t enough, not when you’re writing characters with lives you can only imagine. While I can understand a character’s ambitions, I still don’t know what it’s like, practically speaking, to be a guy, or a conservative religious person, or a trans person, or person of color, and so on. There’s a danger is in thinking you “get it” without realizing there are nuances you might have missed. So, research ends up being really important.
Well, no shit, you’re probably thinking. Writers love research. We are so notoriously into research that another famous piece of writing advice says, “don’t get so caught up in research that you forget to write” (that’s really good advice, by the way). The research I’m talking about isn’t general purpose, like finding out what a crinoline actually did (the answer is this, if you’re curious) or, what happened when you got the plague (it’s really not pretty). That stuff’s important, but the things that really need to be understood, at a character level, are the things that inform a their impulses and reactions.
For example, what’s it like to be a mixed race woman out with your Caucasian dad and have someone assume you’re his call girl? I don’t know, but I’ll bet it would piss you off on a lot of levels, so I’d better dig into some interviews and essays by women who’ve had that experience because as important as it is, empathy is not enough. I can understand that character’s probable anger, but I need to understand the cultural experiences underlying it to get the tone and quality right. Otherwise, I may assume the wrong thing and create a well-intentioned but ridiculously normative portrait of her.
It’s a tricky balance, one that I’m hypersensitive to because I hate stereotypes and I really don’t want to accidentally perpetuate them. That said, I also don’t want to let that fear box me into writing only what I literally know. My passion is in writing people. My characters are individuals with lots of different experiences because I want to dig into how those experiences effect their emotional, sexual and psychological lives. I want to understand something beyond myself. The last thing I want is for my characters to be little carbon copies of me living little carbon copies of my life. How freaking boring would that be?
So, what does that mean? It means that I resist the impulse to scrap a story because I’ve never been a trans girl forced to stop HRT six months in. I’d just better get a really good grip on what that actually means in a medical, biological and experiential sense before I try to write the character.
This is part of why drafting the novel I’m working on is such slow work. There are tons of things I can’t practically know about what it was like to be a woman (or a man) frustrated by social and class limitations in the 1880’s, so I have to familiarize myself with my characters’ contexts in order to understand their motivations and behavior. Then I can let that inform what I already know, which is what it’s like to be powerless in a game you don’t understand; what it’s like to want more than you’re allowed; and what it’s like for your needs to be resisted. Those are the things that I know, and those are the things I have to write. That’s where empathy helps me connect. I just have to make sure that my empathy is correctly informed.
Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with Twitter with kink educator Corey Alexander, who writes under the name, Xan West (@TGStonebutch). Xan is an incredibly gifted and generous writer and has written several posts and resource lists about writing characters who fall outside the realm of socially normative experiences. I’m including a few of the links below. If you’re at all interested, I hope you’ll check them out.
Also, if you liked the image for this post, you can see more of Matou Malin‘s work HERE.