Making it Real: Write What You Know

Okay, this is actually about characters.

I don’t believe — much — in writing what you know or whom you know.  For me, if I try to actually write someone I know, I end up tripping over my own two feet.  Real people are too complex to be characters and making them so kills the book.

I will gladly use your name for a character (some times more than others) but it’s either a minor character, or I’m going to write MY version of you, in this other world.

So, what do I mean by writing what you know?

In short, I’m tired of reading books where people act like they’re newly-human-suited aliens from Alpha Centauri

Granted the most recent examples I remember are in Romance, but this happens in every genre. It’s just the most recent offenders were romances.

If you find that your boyfriend, with whom you’ve been assiduously playing hide the sausage in creative ways, is really an international assassin, it’s not normal, sane or in any way believable to be really upset that HE LIED TO YOU ABOUT BEING SINGLE AND IS ACTUALLY A WIDOWER.

I mean, who actually acts like that.  “Okay, you’re the devil, beast who is called dragon, devourer of worlds, but I’m going to be pouty face you didn’t get me an anniversary gift.”

From the fact these books sell a lot of people go “Oh, it’s just story people.”

BUT it is at best story people, and it’s not in any way “real” and while you might sell it as popcorn, no one will remember it/believe it.

Now, of course humans are humans and humans react in weird ways.  If you have her shocked and upset that he’s an international assassin, but then coming back to “but he didn’t tell me he was married before” that makes sense.  Because that’s the kind of crap people do.

One of the things that struck me, in, of all things, an Agatha Christie book was her character talking about a woman who had survived a bombing in WWII London but what she was really upset about was that her stockings had a run.

That’s very human.  You can’t cope with the things around you, so you fixate on a small and familiar worry.  The thing is as a writer you have to hang a flag on how both weird and normal this reaction is.  You can’t go “Never mind the bombing, my stocking has a run.”

Most of the time the gauge for how these people react has to come for you, but you also have to be aware if you’re not average in something and compensate for that.

For instance, if all actors in Hollywood dropped dead from an actor-selective plague tomorrow, my reaction would be “Oh, really?  What a shame.  Hey, wanna go out to dinner?”

But I know I’m not normal in that, and that most people would be horrified and for some this would have apocalyptic overtones, because they attached to an actor growing up or whatever.

It comes to more than that, though.  If you remember going into a fight at any time, even kindergarten, you know what your great warrior feels like going into battle.  He might be sure of victory, but he’ll also feel a leaden fear in his stomach, because he knows in any case he’s going to get hurt.  And if he lies to himself about that, his hands will still sweat.  He’ll feel sick.  Whatever.

You have to be very aware of how you react to things, so you can fake it for your characters (while at the same time taking care to be sure the character is not IN FACT you.)

So checklist for character revision:

1- Make sure the character is not you in the ways he’s supposed to be not you.  e.g. a medieval farmer never watched star wars or read Shakespeare.

2- Make sure the character reacts in ways you know people react.

3- Make sure the character is not flawless.  Allow us to see him sweat, to understand his fears.

4- Give the character, even secondary ones, his/her own hopes and fears and unbreakable ideals.

5- Figure out little contradictory “bad habits’ or ideas your character has.  No living person is all of a piece.  The anarchist might be a strict disciplinarian; the dictator might be a good father.

Next week: But my world IS totalitarian. — how things are never all one thing.



  1. But my cast is newly human suited aliens from Alpha Centauri!

    (Okay, I’m just being obnoxious, but it is a fun idea to think about.)

      1. I’m not doing nanowrimo. But yesterday I had my best writing day since I started tracking, the day after someone really ticked me off.

        It may be that this month I will produce some more political essays about soviet lies.

        The ideas are being saved.

  2. The trouble with setting a story a millennia or two in the future is you can’t make snide references to Twinkies. No matter how many time you want to.

          1. That could either be funny (aliens find, sample, and want more), really funny (aliens find, analyze, and decide that any species that could eat those is too tough to mess with), or trigger a war (aliens find, sample, and decide that they need to rid the universe of a culture so barbaric as to eat that [stuff]).

          1. I admit to having eaten fruitcake. And liking it enough to eat more fruitcake. I do tend take about a year’s break between such dining, however. Twinkies… either they changed or I did (or both). They are now.. made of disappointment. Much like “chocolate” cereal, as one put it, is “made of wax and sadness.”

            1. I love fruitcake. I get excited whenever I see fruitcakes here; and want to buy several different kinds to send back home to my mom and sis in law#2 because we love fruitcake.

              I remember eating twinkies back in the day and wondering why people were wigging out about them. I haven’t had any since my last visit to the US back in 2003 and am sad to hear that ‘they’re made of disappointment’ now. =(

              1. I love Twinkies. FRIED Twinkies! And fried Oreos on the side. With a fried Snickers for desert! Can you tell I am from the South?!

  3. On point one: I am aware of enough history to know that attitudes towards what we think of as particularly normal and universal (excuse me while I laugh hysterically) are not only *not so*, they aren’t part of the overall historical trend. Take love and marriage, for example. Go back a bit and it’s considered nice but not necessary to have both. And on that note, take “love.” Our 21st-century American definition seems to only admit of one type of love—that is, the hypersexualized kind—and only grudgingly admits that familial love exists, at least until someone becomes a teenager, at which point it’s jettisoned.

    So if you’re writing something that references history accurately, and you have a knight from the Age of Chivalry actually doing chivalric love properly, you’re going to have to lampshade it a bit to not have the reader knocked back on their disbelief when the chivalric knight with his love so pure goes and has sex with the dairymaid. And it doesn’t affect his Love So Pure at all. (Gordon R. Dickson did a decent job of this with his knight Brian in The Dragon and the George, who both worships his lady as an untouchable goddess and describes her as a delightful bedwarmer.)

      1. When Disney did crack and made The Emperor’s New Groove (which I love, but it is still Disney on crack), they had a plot hole so big you could drive a truck through it and pointed it out so that you could laugh at it. Sometimes you just have put big red arrows to those things.

  4. Writing a story at the moment with a protagonist living 1500 years ago. It’s a challenge to have someone looking at historical events without the benefit of hindsight. It drives me nuts when writers have historical protagonists who seemingly know the future (like, to provide an example from something I glanced through, a ’80s person ranting about the War on Terror).

    1. And even real conversations where what happened is seen as inevitable as it happened that way. Sure, the Berlin Wall came down in ’89. But before it did, it felt like the Wall would be there “forever.” Even the day/night before people were celebrating atop the thing that feeling was still there. It was the news because it was that sudden and jarring. Yeah, there were more than hints of cracks in the Iron Curtain, but that was an “Am I dreaming?” event.

      1. And most SF writers thought the Cold War would go on for much longer than it really did. Things look like they’ll last forever until they don’t.

  5. The one that kills me is when Bob orJane does something unforgivable, and the significant other who suffers from it is totally unconcerned.

    Also, when all the friends and family are delighted that Jane or Bob is sleeping around and adopt instantly any new bedmate, even though it’s not that kind of society.

    1. Totally unconcerned, or even unmentioned. Sleeping with a married man/woman? Totally fine; the cuckolded spouse isn’t even worth thinking about, right?

      Like Professor Digory, I find myself saying “What do they teach them at these schools?” quite often. They’re not being taught virtue, that’s for certain.

  6. I have tried writing about people I know and like Sarah, I’ve been largely unsuccessful. On the other hand, I like to drop the names of other fictional characters from other authors; sometimes I use a mash-up of the names other times I make then wild caricatures of the original character. In one book I have a character by the name of “Clarissa Samms” and in another, “J. Winston Croom IV.” Character stereotypes are not always your friends as an author, but sometimes with just a name you can introduce the character and their back story. I’m often guilty of info dumps and I’m awfully glad when I can short circuit that.

  7. Real people are too complex…

    Good thing ox simple.

    Alright, and I have no illusions, any appearance would be as a Truly Minor Character. And that’s for the best. Those big name, main focus folks have so many nasty problems. As put in I Want to Peter Lorre:
    o/` The last that I need is to be a romantic lead. o/`

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