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.