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December 10, 2015

  
There’s a reason why most authors’ first books are thinly-veiled autobiographies.

It’s because the author finally has the chance to rewrite themselves into the person they wish they could be. 

Ok, well maybe it’s not (just) that. 

When I asked my friends once what I should write about, the answer which resonated the most with me (besides “bacon”) was “Write what you know.”

Well. I know lots of things. But how does that translate into a story that people would want to read?

I would put forth the idea that instead of writing “what” you know, you should write  “who” you know. 

Now, before you get the Slander police out, let me explain. 

A good story–one that pulls you in and makes you sigh when it’s over–is not a story about things or places. It is a story about people–people who live in places, who do stuff and own things. The story is in the interaction. The story is grounded in the where and what, but it is driven by the who. 

So how do you write people? By taking from yourself, and from those around you. Where we get caught up as amateurs is in recreating someone we know exactly on paper, in the hopes that we can finally kiss them, or kill them. But these characters we write are their own people, and just as we should not chastise the youngest child for not being like the eldest, our characters must be allowed to grow and develop independently of anyone else. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t steal characteristics of the people you know.

In fact, it is the best way to learn how to write different characters. Not everyone would react to a mouse in their apartment in the same way. If you have a room full of characters who would all scream and jump on a chair, you have not given them unique enough personalities.

Learning how other people “are” is key. And for that you must begin with those close to you, for that is where you can observe, and potentially even ask questions. Watch what they say, and how they act, and then ask yourself why. Why does the little boy pick the mouse up? Perhaps because your little brother loved animals and would have taken the mouse outside, possibly swiping a piece of Brie from the cheese tray on the way out. 

How did your neighbor respond when you told her that her dog ate your hydrangeas? Did she sigh resignedly and assume the cost of having them replaced? Perhaps she grew up always being blamed when things went wrong, and even though it was a mistake that the fence door was unlocked last night, she assumed it was just one more mark against her and had long since stopped fighting it. 

Writing is as much about observation as it is about imagination, for the former is a building block for the latter. Writing humanity which sees the world differently than you do requires you to look at people and not only ask why, but to accept the answer–whatever it is. It means the kleptomaniac pot smoker and the overly-cheery knitter have an equal right to their personalities, their penchants, and their priorities. 

It means you have to accept who the people in your life are. 

It means you have to love them… for who they are. Right now. 

It means you have to love them more than they may even love themselves. 

And yes–this applies to you, too. 

Writing may actually be the best way to learn tolerance, acceptance, and love. Because you need each of these to truly support your characters, to allow them independence from your own existence. 

One of the best/worst responses you could ever get to a story you’ve written is “That’s exactly what he would do” or “Wait, she would never say that!”

Writing characters means creating people with depth, with backstory, with motivation. It means creating people your readers would like to have as friends. And if you’re anything like me, you catch in a hot second when one character says something that just doesn’t resonate. 

Because readers are some of the best observers out there. 

That’s why so many of them write. 

So go ahead. Write about the guy you’re in love with who barely knows your name. Write about the family that drives cross-country for vacations because your mother was deathly afraid of flying. 

Because it’s taking the uniqueness of someone you know and writing it into a character with purpose, intention, and above all, integrity, which creates a character to whom your readers can relate, even if they don’t agree with them at all. 

It is showing how disparate people are that can bring us together. Through differing reactions to shared experiences. Through showing that we are all a little weird, a little crazy, a little silly. Just in our own way. 

And who knows… maybe if you write him truly enough, the guy you’re in love with will finally realize that all along he’s been in love with you.

But that’s a story for another day. 

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