My Shoes are too Small, My Head is too Big: How to “Write What You Know”

One of the things I love best about writing is the fact that it forces you to really empathise with your characters – at least, if you want to write something well. In general, this means stepping outside of yourself and frequently outside of your comfort zone, as the people you’re writing about won’t necessarily be like you, your friends, your family, or anybody you know in real life at all.

There is an old writing canard that urges writers to “write what you know,” and to a certain extent that is good advice. In my opinion, however, people are too apt to take it literally. “Oh,” says the scientist. “I’ll write about a scientist who discovers the cure for cancer.” Or, “Oh,” says the blogger. “I’ll give my main character a book review blog…”

Knowing a great deal about a subject, particularly if it is important to the plot, is definitely a good thing, as it can give your novel a sense of grounding that it might otherwise lack. Likewise, it makes it easier for you to write the character with attention to detail and realism — after all, he or she closely resembles yourself in an important way. However, there is also the danger that such familiarity breeds contempt. In my own writing, at least, I’ve found that writing characters that are too close to home tends to make me sloppy. I stop asking myself about how that specific character would respond to the situation and instead go with how I would respond — or wish I had responded — and the plot starts to take on the qualities of a wish-fulfilment fantasy, taking events and incidents from my own life and making them ‘better’ or less embarrassing. There is also the problem of information overload, in that, writers who are also experts on a particular subject are, sometimes, apt to become bogged down in minutiae that are not relevant to the plot at hand.

How, then, can we apply “write what you know” in a useful way? In my view, what this aphorism primarily refers to is not factual knowledge as such but the emotional content of what you write. For example, suppose in your current project you have a character whose lover is cheating on her, and she finds out. If you’re lucky, you have never personally had this experience. However, you probably do know what it’s like to be betrayed in another context, so, in order to write this situation, you can examine what you know about betrayal to understand how the character is feeling and how she might react. In this way, you can expand your  “knowledge” to situations you technically know nothing about. You can fit into your character’s shoes.

I read somewhere once that the best writing is always a little uncomfortable – both to write, and to read. This can be particularly true if, say, you find yourself forced to step inside the mind and motivations of a murderer, as with crime fiction, or even just someone you completely dislike or disagree with. Then the shoes pinch, the clothes feel uncomfortable, and you worry: what must people think of me for writing this? What kind of person am I for reading this? Or even just, I’m totally not qualified to be doing this, am I? Nevertheless, if you’re willing to put in the effort, I think you can write anything, as long as you remember whose shoes you’re wearing (and you have the skill to pull it off, I suppose, but that’s another kettle of fish pair of shoes altogether).

Nobody can really know how something feels to someone else, even if they have experienced the same thing in identical circumstances, because different people feel and react differently. And that applies whatever your sex, gender, height, weight, age or ethnicity. Thus in order to empathise with someone, even on a daily basis, we are required to use our imaginations and extrapolate beyond our own experience. In a way, writing is just like having a conversation with a friend and trying to see their point of view. Not everyone does it (we’ve all read books where the characters were just too perfect or puppet-like, or obvious author facsimiles), and not everyone can do it to the same degree, but at the end of the day, I think that’s what makes both reading and writing so worthwhile: they can help challenge you to grow as a person and give you insight into all the different corners of the human psyche. As Elizabeth Knox puts it in The Vintners Luck: “I read to learn what people think. Not about each other, but about themselves.”

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Sarah Reese Sarah has recently completed a double degree in Law, English and Linguistics and is about to move on to postgraduate study, with the goal of eventually obtaining a PhD. As a reader, she enjoys magical realism and literary fiction, as well as Jane Austen and the occasional adventure novel. In her spare time she also writes historical fiction, which she hopes to get published in the not-too-distant future.

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