Writers write what they know. Even if your story is set in a fictional, futuristic dystopian society, the characters’ behaviors and traits reflect what the writer knows. What the writer has experienced or witnessed.
This past Christmas, my mother gifted me with a tea towel that reads “Careful, You’ll End Up In My Novel,” and I loved it. Likely my favorite gift because it is so true. My agent, Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Agency, gave this advice to writers:
1) Be nice. Be gracious. Keep your cool and try not to get involved in the cattiness of online bickering.
2) You cannot write in a vacuum, so get out into the world and work, meet people and interact with other writers.
3) Sometimes the best writing can originate from an overheard conversation. But you have to experience the world in order to write about it. I believe that you have to live in order to write. You have to live. Period!”
The basis for the most despicable character in my Rowan of the Wood series, the young protagonist’s foster father Frank, came from two highly unpleasant individuals.
The first is a man who I never officially met. He sat next to me in one of those boring, mandatory corporate meetings when I worked at Dell. The hatred and prejudice he spat normally would’ve inspired me to engage in a pointless debate with the man, but as fortune had it, I was in the middle of writing my first book. Grasping my mighty pen, I started taking notes of how he looked and what he said. His words sparked my imagination and armed me with serious fodder, things I couldn’t have invented because I just don’t think that way. Other people do, and it’s important to be able to write them realistically. Frank began taking shape.
The second man I worked with briefly at the Cannes Film Festival. He was a walking stereotype. Rich. Powerful. Cruel. Condescending. Abusive. He wore the remains of his deceased dog pressed into a gem around his neck. $10,000 that cost him. He told me. His repulsive mannerisms served to emphasize his special brand of misogyny, and many of those physical habits found their way into Frank, rounding him into the most loathsome character in our books, even more contemptible than the main antagonist.
These character traits mixed with some dramatized events from my husband’s own foster home upbringing created a memorable character, albeit a minor one.
On top of these examples, betrayals and rude behavior witnessed in everyday life have found their way into my books–as have people who touched my life in profoundly positive ways. Even a conversation overheard at a coffee shop inspired a short story.
As writers, we strive to capture the human condition, and only through experiencing or observing human interaction can we effectively do this.
Writers write what they know.
So, yes. Be nice to me or you’ll end up an evil, soul-sucking vampire in my next novel.
<This article first appeared on The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog on January 19, 2011>
What inspires you to create a character a certain way? Do you write from life experiences or do you make everything up?
8 Comments Add yours
I do write fiction — in fact that used to be all that I wrote — but I’ve been on a CNF bent for about a year and I have to say that it suits me. This was a great piece, BTW. Very well done.
Thank you! So pleased you enjoyed it.
I do write fiction, and you are so right, life is where you find your characters and plots. Just go to any coffee shop and eavesdrop for a day. You’ll come away with tons of material. Great post, thanks for sharing.
Thank you! No kidding on the evesdropping. Perfect way to study dialogue and to get character ideas.
Great advice, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve written an annoying person into a book rather than waste time and effort trying to get to realise how stupid they are. So much so that I actually enjoy finding myself sat next to a loathsome character in a coffee shop. Irritating people seem to fuel my creativity, so it’s a good job the world is full of idiots!
There sure is plenty of idiocy to inspire!
Great post. One of the reasons why I love writing is because it’s so therapeutic in that way – so many people I interact with, from strangers to friends, make it into my work. It’s such a good way of trying to make peace with situations where people have treated you badly, especially because you can try to explore their motivations or why they ended up the way they are. That’s why I always say writing is like oxygen to me, because it’s my way of understanding the world!
Indeed. It can be cathartic. Certainly has been for me. 🙂