It’s something that every first time author has heard: ‘write what you know’. Write about places you’ve been to, people you’ve met, spent time with, understood, situations you’ve experienced. And for a first book, that’s great advice, particular when it comes to creating characters. Characters react in different ways to different situations and an understanding of why they act that way will influence their actions in your story. The more believable your characters, the more likely they are to resonate with your readers.
There are pitfalls to writing about something you’re not entirely familiar with. Take this scenario: a character comes to Karachi for the first time and arranges a meeting with a friend in Saddar. They decide to meet in the town square at 2.30 pm. Your character arrives at the rendevous with the sound of the azaan going off at a nearby mosque. He notices the conspicuous absence of women in the area. He waits.
This short passage will have any number of readers pointing out that a) there’s no ‘town square’ or open space in Saddar. Almost the entire area is built up with shops; b) your character couldn’t have heard the azaan at 2.30 in the afternoon because the afternoon prayers fall before 2pm and after 4pm. c) Saddar is always full of women because there is a very large fabric, clothing, jewellery and household items market there.
And if you think that readers are unlikely to nitpick, you haven’t read Pakistan’s reaction to Homeland’s depiction of Islamabad.
Sticking to what you know, however, could be incredibly boring. Unless you’ve had a wild life and know what it’s like to hike up Everest or go white water rafting, your character may end up sitting in front of his computer, stalking people on Facebook through most of the story.
Or, if you’re writing more than one book, your characters may end up exactly the same as each other. I have to fight hard not to write my women as aloof and quiet — like myself. I hate pink and, so far, none of my characters have ever worn pink. I prefer subtlety and layered meanings to words, so my characters are mostly eloquent. That’s going to get boring pretty fast, so I can’t do that any more. It’s what I know, and it worked for book number one. Book number two is going to need some serious research.
And that’s what it comes down to. ‘Writing what you know’ doesn’t mean you should limit yourself to strict parameters. It just means that if you’ve never dived from a plane, you have to find out what it means to do so. Not that you should jump yourself, but ask people what it’s like, do your research. This is not an invitation to dive through a plate glass window in order to figure out what injuries one is likely to sustain. Better to find someone who’s treated such injuries, or look it up online.
This is all necessary up to a certain point.
DISTINGUISH BETWEEN REALISM AND REALITY
There is a line, and it lies between the hundreds of reality shows and news programs that fill our waking day and the luxury of curling up with a great piece of fiction. Stories don’t always have to be a hundred percent plausible. Entertaining our readers means transporting them to a situation, a place and into the mind of a character that may not exist in real life. It means making our characters do things that someone in real life would be unlikely to do. It means letting our characters get away with things that we would never be able to get away with.
The Game of Thrones phenomena works not just because of the strange worlds, the magic and the dragons, but because the characters’ actions are extreme—they’re ruthless, unaffected by morality, single-minded survivors. They do what needs to be done to claw their way to the top.
I don’t think many people will identify with the brutal personality traits of the Mountain or Cersei Lannister, but we love to read about them (or watch them, as may be the case). A generation ago, no one had ever heard of Tatooine or knew what a Jedi was. But to those who grew up on Star Wars, the Force is a power we all wish we could harness. And that wouldn’t have happened if George Lucas had restricted himself to ‘what he knew’.
These are fantasy stories, you might be saying right now. But in movies like ‘Fun with Dick and Jane’, the characters turn into professional criminals with questionable ease and no moral dilemmas, and yet, you end up rooting for Dick and Jane to succeed as criminals. That they eventually get away with it is wonderful—the ending we all want. In real life, if my husband and I were to start stealing to supplement our income, even if we were never caught, our conscience would probably make wrecks out of us. We’d be on medication to assuage the guilt of stealing our way to success. While that might make a great book, it wouldn’t be half as entertaining.
Write what you know, up to a point. Create characters like Abel Magwitch. Make him a criminal and a secret benefactor of your underdog (how often does that happen in real life?). Write about complete amateurs running afoul of a gang of murderous thugs and coming out unscathed (relatively) and one-up on the thugs. If you’ve ever read one of Dick Francis’ novels, you’ll know what I mean. Dick Francis was a former jockey who wrote the most exquisite thrillers set in the world of horse racing and breeding. His characters are ordinary, normal people with one extraordinary talent. And this talent would see them through unbelievable situations that a jockey, a teacher or a banker would never encounter in real life. It all reads like Mr. Francis is writing what he knows, but he’s doing more than that. He’s making stuff up.
Write what you know, and then write what you don’t know. Write the extraordinary character, the unbelievable situation and the imaginary world. Readers get enough of reality from the media and news organisations. Fiction should be all about the imagination.