Write what you know. The cliché every budding author hears. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, at some point some helpful individual will share this pearl of wisdom with you, thinking it will somehow make you a better writer. Some defend this cliché by saying it doesn’t mean to just fictionalize your life, but to write about the emotions, the atmosphere, or mood you have personally experienced.
Rubbish. For inexperienced writers, this can be a bit of helpful advice to get the creativity flowing. But it soon too easily becomes a crutch. Writing characters and transposing your thoughts and feelings onto them is lazy writing; and worse, your writing will often not read true. If you want to have believable, relatable characters, obeying this “rule”
Strive to write what you don’t know. Write from perspectives that differ from your own. Staying within the safe cocoon of what you know may make you feel comfortable, but if you want to become known as a writer, this will not likely help you get noticed. “But how do I write what I don’t know?” One might ask. The idea of writing from the perspective of someone whose emotions and life experiences have differed from your own is daunting. The solution is simple.
Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t think about maybe doing it one day, once you have a little more writing experience. Do it now. Talk to people that have different views from your own. Create characters that challenge your viewpoints. Create a pacifist who opposes all acts of aggression. Create a devious liar who is hiding amongst your heroes, plotting to destroy them from within. Then, just as you are really starting to hate the character, give the reader insight into the character’s psyche. Show them why this antagonist is trying to sabotage the heroes. Research for your story. Learn about your topic. If you have a wild west gunslinger in your story, learn how a gun works. Learn what types of firearms were in use during the time period.
This is one of my longer term goals. I have stayed within my comfort zone for too long. My challenge is to make a likeable villain. I am trying to get inside the head of someone willing to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to achieve their desired goal. It is easy to create an over the top villain. I want to make the character believable, and on some level, a little sympathetic. I’ve been brushing up on my psychology, learning more about the way the mind works. Research is a rough, tedious,and completely necessary part of the writing process.
So, challenge yourselves. Don’t write cookie-cutter characters who all think, feel, and react in the same way. Make your cowardly confidante, your acrophobic hero. Defy the well meaning nay sayers that think writing what you know will help you be a better writer. Tell the stories you want to tell – but tell them believably.