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Finding your Way Into your Character’s Experience -- by Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez

“You can tell nothing... unless you are in that condition yourself.” This quote from author Stephen Crane sounds on the surface like the familiar saying “write what you know.” But underneath it’s really different.

I’ve read some published short stories and novels that depicted experiences I’ve had myself, but the depiction didn’t “ring true.” It was clear to me that the author hadn’t had the same experience and didn’t really understand it. In other stories, the depiction does “ring true”: I am able to recognize myself in the character, and the author really managed to capture what an experience is like.

I don’t think the difference is always because the authors in the second group really had that specific experience. I think it’s also possible to write about experiences you haven’t had yourself, or about a character who is very different from you. But you do need a “way in,” something that allows you to connect to the character and what’s happening to them. It seems to me as a reader that this can make the difference between a good story and a great story.

Sure, some very successful authors have direct knowledge of the subjects they write about- like John Grisham, who was a trial lawyer before he began writing legal thrillers- and some novels are thinly disguised memoirs. But the vast majority are not: most writers depict characters quite different from themselves dealing with situations they’ve never personally experienced. And in some genres, nobody can write from direct experience. You, the author, haven’t traveled through time, worked on a 1500s sailing ship, or fled from hungry zombies, and neither has anyone else alive today.

I think it’s possible to write these stories by transforming your own experiences. It’s a way of writing what you know, but not directly. You may have not personally been an immigrant in a strange country, but maybe you’ve been a rural person who moved to a big city, or a person from a secular family who married someone from a religious family. In that case, you know the culture shock an immigrant feels, the surprise at encountering attitudes and ways of doing things that were unknown to you, the feeling of not knowing how to behave. You may never have been a soldier fighting in an intergalactic war, but if you’ve been a medical professional or a first responder, you know what it like to have a high pressure job in which people’s lives depend on your actions. You can draw on that to understand the character’s experience of what it feels like when he has to make quick, high-stakes decisions. Or perhaps you’ve faced a moral dilemma in your professional or personal life that you can use to portray a character struggling with a quite different moral dilemma. The key is to have some point of connection that allows you to understand your character from the inside.

Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage contained such realistic depictions of battle and of a soldier’s emotions that the public was convinced it was written by a Civil War veteran. But the author, only 22 years old when he wrote the novel in 1893, had never been a soldier. He had, however, lived in poverty in the violent slums of the New York Bowery district, and he had survived potentially dangerous childhood illnesses. He also wrote that he thought back to his high school football games when imagining battle scenes. Somehow, Crane managed to get into the perspective of a (young soldier) in his first battle enough that readers who had been soldiers were convinced. He seems to have accomplished this by drawing on his own experiences and using imagination to go the rest of the way.

I try to use this technique while writing. Before writing a scene, I revisit an experience that involves similar emotions and try to put myself back there. I think of the five senses, the thoughts I had at the time. I get my heart pumping if it was a frightening or exciting experience. Then, to connect this to what my character is about to experience, I imagine myself as the character, in their perspective, in the scene. Then I write (or re-write) the scene.

To write the aftermath of a momentous scene, think of how a similarly important event affected you or someone you know. This can help correct a common problem we sometimes see in books and even more often in movies: characters who go through an intense experience that seems to make little impression on them.

This technique can also enhance the theme or meaning of your work. By finding the connection between your life and the story you’ve come up with, you might discover why you were motivated to write this particular story and why you care about the issues it depicts.

Have you noticed this phenomenon in the books you’ve read or in your own writing? Please leave comments below!


Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez, PhD is a biologist and freelance writer covering health, agriculture, gardening, herbs, and public science education. She offers writing and editing services for websites, businesses, nonprofits, and trade magazines and can be contacted at In her spare time, she writes horror and science fiction short stories.

Posted by Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez 29 Jan at 00:19
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Responses to this blog

Harpalycus 29 Jan at 07:46  
A well written and thought-provoking blog. But I am not totally convinced by it, though largely sympathetic.

I think the basic contention here is absolutely right, in that our own emotional responses underlie any literary description. But I am not sure that I agree that if a description fails to ‘resonate’ with our own experience this is evidence that the author didn’t have or failed to understand that experience.

Because actual experience is totally private, it can only be communicated by a shared language, but one in which you cannot ultimately know what the other person actually means. You can only make sense of it by equating it to your own experience, and that might be a totally false equation.

Thus, if you say you have a toothache, I recall an unpleasant sensation in my tooth and assume that you feel the same. It might be the same feeling, it might be similar enough to be meaningful, it might be totally different. There is no possible way that I can know what you are actually feeling.

It is the old philosophical problem of qualia. When I see a red mug and you agree that it is, indeed, red, are we, in fact perceiving the same colour? Because we both identify what we see as red does not mean that my experience of red is the same as yours. You might be seeing something that I would call blue or some colour that I cannot even imagine.

Here we must differentiate between experience as the external description of an event (which I shall call the situation) and as the internal mental response (which I shall call the feeling).
So, I have the experience (situation) of a sharp sleet shower which causes the experience (feeling) of a painful ache in the face.
You have the experience (situation) of a sharp sleet shower which causes the experience (feeling) of a delightful tingling sensation.
If we assume experience to mean the situation, then it is obviously the same.
If we take it to be the feeling, then there is no automatic reason to assume that it is not a genuine response. It is clearly a different ‘experience’ but there is no reason to propose that the writer ‘didn’t really understand it.’ Or that s/he ‘failed to capture what (it) is like.’

Thus, I am not convinced that descriptions that ‘don’t ring true’ mean that the author has failed in some way. It may well be that s/he has, was just a bad writer, or expressed it in terms which have different meanings to you both, or it is certainly possible that the situation described is simply felt very differently.

My second point, is that I would maintain that it is impossible to write about anything that has not been experienced in some form, either directly, or indirectly through secondary sources. Imagination seems to consist, not of conjuring totally new and unknown forms into conscious being, but the juxtaposition and melding of known things into a new relationship. The chimera of Greek mythology is the classic example, a monster created by the synthesis of three known animals, lion, goat and serpent. You cannot take out of the brain more than is put into it. You can certainly create new relationships, but not fundamental sense data from nothing. You cannot imagine a totally new colour or a new emotion. You can imagine the existence of a new colour, but not the colour itself.

The basic human emotions seem to be all but universal. I consider that anyone who writes of an emotion would normally write in terms of their actual experience, whether they consciously consider it or not. Though I would agree there is a problem of drawing purely on secondary sources.

So, while I have no difficulty with the sensible suggestion that you might improve your writing by deliberately referring back to your own experiences, I am not convinced that the technique is necessary, as seems to be implied.

Stephen Crane would be an obvious and famous example. I am not sure that there was any deliberate ‘thinking back’ at all. The actual quote is:
"Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field, or else fighting is a hereditary instinct, and I wrote intuitively; for the Cranes were a family of fighters in the old days".1

Thank you for an interesting submission.

1.Monteiro, George. 2000. Stephen Crane's Blue Badge of Courage. p 86. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-2578-4.

Rellrod 29 Jan at 10:52  
Great post — I think you've got the key: we may not have had a specific experience, but we've had analogous ones.

Harp's point about knowing other people's sensations is a valid philosophical issue, but I think it bears mostly on whether one can prove from an unconvincing scene that the writer hadn't had the relevant experience. We find in practice that people's reports of their experiences have enough similarity that we can reasonably infer they have sensations similar to ours — and enough differences that to make us aware that we don't experience things in exactly the same way. But the post, I think, is not mainly about whether we can prove why a story was written badly; it's to help us look for those analogous things in our own past to draw on, and to aid our imagination by reminding us that they're not precisely the same. The rage of the football field is no doubt similar to that of combat, but I doubt it's identical. (I should note that I've never been in combat, and my experience even on the football field is extremely limited. )

I have noticed that actual experience can be a helpful foundation for analogous situations. For example, Elizabeth Moon, a former Marine, writes very convincingly in the Paksenarrion trilogy about the mundane reality of military life in a fantasy-world mercenary army — things like digging latrines.

Harpalycus 29 Jan at 11:41  
Fair point, Rick. I just felt that not recognising a particular response did not necessarily add up to inauthenticity. I probably didn't make it clear enough that I agree with the overall idea of the piece. And made far too much out of far too little.
I humbly withdraw my nitpick.
Life's too short.
Maureenja 16 Feb at 01:21  
I was taken aback at the similarities of my father and Denzil Washington's character in FENCES. My father though successful was either well liked or deemed obnoxious. As patriarch for his siblings since his father died early in his life he believed he was privilege to making rules throughout their adult lives and carried that responsibility to his immediate kin. I could easily write a script or story like Fences having similar experiences as the son. Dreams shot down, one after the other, to fulfill a father's failure.

However recognizing parallels isn't so unique a tool for expressions.

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