Let’s say you have a good Idea about your options for openings, how to use your writing exercises for targeted work, and the steps for questioning your work to build pre-work notes. You’ve exercised and exercised and now you’d like to get some writing done. What should you write about? Some teachers say beginners should write what they know. And most novices take this to mean write about myself.
How important or exciting are you? Doing that might result in characters seeming bland. A bit too average. Not enough setting them apart from anyone else you have walking around in your life.
Want to work on that? Here’s how. The trick here (and for novices it is tricky) is to come at this problem backwards.
Don’t say to yourself, Humm, this character needs more—umph! They just do the same old things everyone does. I need to make this gal or guy more quirky. How can they be, I don’t know, more better?
Instead, work from what you know. Don’t think of your characters at all yet. Just think of things you know about people. What do you know about boys, girls, men, or women? Not what we all know – that general stuff, those are just clichés that society knows about people.
I’m talking about what you’ve personally experienced in your life about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s. These are the bits of knowledge that bring your writing up a notch, and bring your characters to life. This is what advisors mean when they say, ‘Write what you know’.
The tricky part is that what you know needs to be applied to your story randomly. So don’t ask yourself ‘What do I know about private investigators, or single dads, or bad boyfriends?‘
See the example and exercise for what we mean by not doing that.
- Example Toggle
We’re trying for tricky here – and what needs tricking is your preconceived notions of what you think you know about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s.
That’s coming at things head on.
I know that an old friend of mine, when he cooked, would talk to himself in a low voice all though the prep; lovingly narrating every move he made.
That quirk of self-talk in the kitchen is something unique that I can take from my actual life knowledge and use as a character’s quirk— in any of my novels. Luckily, it could be used differently on any PI, or a single dad, or a bad boyfriend character I write.
Drawing on character knowledge of this sort will work far better than those societal clichés we all assume we know about people. He is a silent type. She can be a harridan. Teens are disgruntled or sullen.
Those things are rather abstract. The act of self-talk in a character is a bit more concrete.
Now, if you feel you’re not a novice, perhaps you’re a 2nd Tier writer, there is even more you can do.
See the exercise for that tip.
- Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle
Lesson Exercise 1:
Ask yourself how this character’s quirk would differ from character to character? That is refining uniqueness for the needs of your story. It also exercises refinement of how you might use the character trait in your character.
How can it be applied on that investigator? How can it be switched up so that it’s nothing as how it would be used for a single dad, or a bad boyfriend? How can you do some serious writing to find what’s uniquely characteristic about your characters?
If all three of these characters are in your story, and you run this exercise for all three of them. One will work a lot better than the others and that is who you’ll give this quirky habit to, from ‘what you know’.
Here’s some of the ways you can use what you know– how people self-talk sometimes– with your fiction:
- Private investigator –he’s contemplating going to AA and the self-talk he does waiting in his car while on a case is his way hearing what he’ll sound like if he ever gets up the courage to go to a meeting.
- Single dad –He’s outside the kid’s room, in the hallway, and overhears his two sons mimicking that self-talk Dad does and in a flash, realizes he’s doing okay by them after all, no matter what anyone says.
Bad boyfriend – He’s there on the couch after a fight, doing that self-talk thing again. But this time your character hears him running baby names options, mixing them with his last name, then a hyphenated version of the FMC’s and his. For one moment in your story, this person is more than a clichéd version of all those other bad boyfriends.
To find out how to best write ‘what you know’, you’ll need to put that found knowledge into a unique circumstance or scene. It doesn’t have to do with your plot (though that’s good if it does). It can be there just to heighten your characters’ uniqueness so that the reader sees him as real and less like some societal cliché.