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“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 firstname.lastname@example.org. In her spare time, she writes horror and science fiction short stories.