Sunday, July 24, 2011

Write What You Know... In Fantasy?

I am re-reading Romeo and Juliet for reasons that won't interest you.  The little collector's edition I now own has a foreword from someone I've never heard of.  In it, Aforementioned Unknown makes this observation (NOTE: It's a British publication, so all spelling is SIC):

"Reading the play you discover that the characters all act and speak as you would expect anyone to do in the circumstances.  Those circumstances might be dramatic, even violent, and the setting long ago and far away.  But the interactions make sense.  Events unfold not in the way of throw-away fiction or drama, driven by dithering, unreasonable behaviour and ludicrous coincidences, but via the credible reactions of each character to the actions of the others.

"[Consider Juliet.]... we empathise not just with her predicament, but with her rational manner of coping with it.  And that is why we are so touched with the tragedy of her death."

-Ned Halley, Page xiii of this publication

Here's the thing: Mr. Halley gives these words a delighted air, as if this resonance with the reader is a unique and uncommon trait.  Perhaps in Shakespeare's time it was.  But I would contend that empathy with the main character(s) goes far beyond 'delightful' in contemporary publiction - it's essential.

I could make all kinds of quips regarding Mr. Halley's observation that Shakespeare's characters speak " you would expect anyone to do in the circumstances..." but you and I both know what he actually meant by that:

Whatever world your characters inhabit, whatever language or colloqialisms they use, whatever creatures they may encounter, it is imperative that you bring to them an element of humanity that is common to us all.

When we're told to Write What You Know that doesn't mean one must become an expert in swordsplay to write a convincing Knight (though that may come in handy).  It means a writer's job is to identify the most common element at the core of your protagonist (and his / her opponents) which anyone can recognize.


(I.e. If that was me, I'd feel that way too.)

As my Writer Swami puts it:

"...thought it is the writer's world the reader enters, there are all sorts of opportunities for confusion.  Too often, the writer falls into the trap of writing about things--about sex, about violence, about scenery, about war, about domestic bliss or discord.  Historical fact or clinical detail overwhelm him.  The implications and evaluations, tacit in his thinking, never quite reach the reader. 

"In brief, although his work may on the face of it be cast rigidly in story form, it isn't actually fiction.  For a story is never really about anything.  Always it concerns someone's reactions to what happens: his feelings, emotions, impulses, dreams, ambitions, clashing drives and inner conflicts.  The external serves only to bring them into focus.... as the old rule-of-thumb has it, 'Every story is somebody's story."

-Dwight V. Swain, Page 43 of this publication

In other words... it isn't the words about your fabricated world that draw a reader in.  It is what you know of people.  Of feelings.  Of the human condition.  Using the focal character, you draw a picture of a world and a set of circumstances that - if the reader were in it - would evoke great emotion.

You then attribute those feelings to your focal character.  And create reactions within them and to them that also resonate for the reader.

In short, you make sure your characters act like real people... even if they speak like fourteenth-century soap-opera stars.

I may not be a swashbuckling wench with a serpent tattoo, but if you place me firmly in the head and heart of a buxom young lass who demonstrates a humanity I can recognize, I'll feel like I am.

That is what I think it means to write what you know.  Search yourself.  Search your heart.  Search your life - and observe the actions and reactions of those you love.  Understand how you feel and why, then attribute those same feelings, reactions and conclusions to your characters.  Your reader will love you for it - even if it means empathizing with a demon-blasting immortal, or a narcisistic Emperess. 

Your Turn: What other tips have you found useful to successfully deliver 'writing what you know' in fantasy genres?


  1. I think it's always important to make the characters' reactions realistic. Since I write YA, however, I also have to make them a bit more dramatic and allow the characters to have faulty reasoning.
    Instead of 'write what you know', I believe in 'write what you love'. Pick the genre and character-types you love most. Even if it doesn't sell, you'll have had a lot of fun working on it.

  2. Hi Aimee- I have nothing about fantasy writing, but for non-fiction writing, my best tip for writing what you know is to simply write as if you're writing an email to your best friend then go back and edit it up/clean it up later.

  3. Yes, this!! Awesome post. If you know all about using cool medieval stuff that's helpful, but readers want to connect with the characters and their feelings. You can research the stuff about setting, but you can't research FEELINGS. So that's what you have to know, to write a compelling narrative. Seriously, really great post :)