Write What You Know: Good Or Bad Advice?

One of my favorite things to talk about is writing.  I could daily give long (and probably rather annoying and repetitive) speeches on the subject, but since there are few people in this world who would be interested in such a monologue, I’ve decided to post my thoughts here, where I hope such people will find this and read it.

  (Source: Jantoo.com)

Here’s a piece of writing advice we’ve all heard at some point: write what you know.  Since writing has become a serious hobby for me, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether this is really good advice or not.  (That’s what everyone spends their free time thinking about, isn’t it?  No?  Just me?  Okay.)  If you write what you know, you will probably tend to do these three things: writing stories set in places you’re familiar with, writing about characters based on real people you know, and writing about emotions you feel/ issues you deal with.

One opinion  and another opinion

Obviously, not all writers stick to settings they’ve been to.  If that were the case, then we would be bereft of fantasy and science fiction, which would be a terrible tragedy indeed.  On the other hand, several writers have penned wonderful books set in their own hometown.  I don’t think it really matters whether writers choose to write in settings that they’ve visited or not, so long as they are familiar with them.  Regardless of what kind of writing you want to do, you have to know about your  setting.  If you write a book set in Portugal and get the name of the capital city wrong, then people who have actually been to Portugal will be disgusted and possibly throw your book aside.  If you write about a fantasy world and have no idea what it looks like, then you’ll run into several problems and weaken your story.  So in a way, writing what you know is good advice for setting.

If you truly stick to writing what you know, then all your characters will be based on real people.  This can be a little risky, as the models for your characters can catch on.  Again, this is something you can go either way on, and authors have been successful with both fictional and real characters.  Personally, I prefer to write about characters of my creation, although sometimes I may get inspiration from a character trait of a real person.  For example, if some one I know stands out as really caring, then I might try to work that aspect into one of my characters.

One thing that writers commonly do is base characters (especially protagonists) on themselves.  The advantage to this is that it can help you create a more complex character.  There probably aren’t many people you understand better than yourself, so it helps you understand your characters better if they’re like you.  The downside to this is that all your characters will start to sound the same.  You might be a great person, but your readers will get tired of reading several books populated with characters exactly like you.  Another risk (which becomes even riskier when you base your protagonists on yourself) is that you might be tempted to portray yourself without your flaws.  It’s hard to publish the ugly side of yourself  for everyone to see, and it will sound much more appealing to play up all your strengths instead, possibly even adding a few strengths you wish you had.  The problem with this is that you’ll end up with an obnoxiously perfect protagonist that your readers are more likely to want to throw up on than to admire or relate to.

So if you’re able to create characters based on yourself without avoiding these errors, then go for it.  Otherwise, I’d stay away from this.  When I create a major character, I always try to think of specific  things that make him/her similar and different from me.  I keep some similarities so that I can relate to them, and make some differences so that… well, I believe I’ve explained that.

So basically, don’t do this.

Now for the final part of my post: the emotions.  This is one area where I usually write what I know.  I do this because I’m afraid that if I write about an emotion or issue I’m too unfamiliar with, it will come out all wrong and people who have been through what I’m writing about won’t like it.  I also stick to feelings I know because I think my heart will be in it more and I’ll do a better job of making the reader feel the right emotion with me.  I’m not saying that’s the right way, I’m just saying that’s what I do.

But then again, it is possible to have success in writing about characters in situations you’ve never dealt with.  For instance, John Green has never been a teenage girl dying of cancer, but The Fault in Our Stars was still a bestseller.  Though before writing this book, he did spend time with cancer patients.  (You don’t have to write what you know, but always do your research.)

Well, I think that’s all I have to say.  If you’ve made it through this ridiculously long blog post, then here’s a gold star for you:


2 thoughts on “Write What You Know: Good Or Bad Advice?

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