WRITE WHAT YOUR CHARACTERS KNOW

By now I think we’ve generally disposed of the old saw: Write what you know. This is, in any case, especially bad advice if what you’re writing can in any way be described as fantasy, science fiction, or horror. If you tell me you literally know the fantasy world you’re writing about, full of dragons and wizards, I will ask that you please seek psychological help before editorial advice. So of course we know that George R.R. Martin has no first hand knowledge of what it’s like to actually be the King of the Andals and the First Men. He’s making it up.

Okay… based on some historical research, a firm grounding in the fantasy genre thus far, and all those important things we need to do to write genre stories well. And sure, a preponderance of Stephen King’s horror novels feature the writer from Maine as a protagonist, his version of Woody Allen’s decades-long string of movies about himself but with ghosts and monsters. It’s possible to write about yourself in horror. Fine.

What we really want to figure out how to do is not write what we know, but what our characters know. And I’ll limit that to what one point of view (POV) character knows in that particular scene. Not all characters know everything all of the other characters know (at least mostly) and that’s good—that’s where things like suspense and tension and conflict come from.

We need to put some concerted effort into not writing about ourselves, or more so not injecting ourselves, the author, into our stories. Fairly often in edits I tag a sentence or even a whole paragraph with notes like: Who’s thinking this? or How does she know this? or Don’t feel you have to explain everything.

In different ways, these three questions come down to POV. And no, again, it’s not okay to write in the antiquated third person omniscient. Believe it or not, we don’t see ourselves as and so can not really fathom the experience of God. We (your readers) see ourselves as people who, for the length of your story, want to experience what it’s like to be some other person, and for our genres, to be some other person in a world of myth and legend or a galaxy far, far away.

The worst form this disconnection between author, character, and reader can take is described in Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern:

When writers are self-conscious about themselves as writers they often keep a great distance from their characters, sounding as if they were writing encyclopedia entries instead of stories. Their hesitancy about physical and psychological intimacy can be a barrier to vital fiction.

Ultimately, yes, we do write from our own experiences—our own emotional and psychological experiences. Horror authors confront what scares them. Fantasy authors imagine what sort of king they would be. Science fiction authors want to explore an alien planet full of mystery and aliens. We loosely base characters on ourselves, our family, friends, coworkers, or favorite or least favorite artists, scientists, celebrities, or politicians or historical figures across the expanse of human history. But once those characters are conceived and it comes time to give them voice, give them their own voice. And by that I don’t mean some cooked up accent, but give them a package of experiences of their own. Think as deeply as you can about things like: How would she respond? Would he be afraid right now? then: This feels right for her, but that’s going to get her in a load of trouble, which is great, or No, he wouldn’t be afraid but he damned well should be, which also great.

Inhabit your characters. As the great Rod Serling said, “Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.” Be the entire cast of your novel, as hard as that sounds—and if I wonder if anyone’s keeping track of how many times I’ve said: No one ever said this was going to be easy.

Here are at least a few things to think about in terms of showing your readers only what that one POV character experiences in a particular scene, and how that’s filtered through the package of experience they come in with. I’ve also tagged, in edits, anachronistic metaphors like a fantasy character saying “that’s par for the course” in a world without golf.

In her brilliant memoir The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, Samantha Harvey (wrote:

How can I describe this feeling I have when I lie down to sleep and it’s as if I’m falling from a fifty-storey building, and there’s nobody, nothing, to catch me? See, that isn’t describing it. That’s describing something else—falling from a fifty-storey building with nobody to catch me. What use is there in coming up with a metaphor of something I’ve never experienced to describe something I often experience? How can I describe the sense that underscores my life—all life as I see it—that nothing is known? Nothing is inherently certain. Everything is bottomless. How can I get to the heart of that?

You see, already the building metaphor doesn’t even work as a metaphor, let alone as some literal evocation of falling. With the fifty-storey building the fear, presumably, is in hitting the ground, when really my fear is that there is no ground.

Actual people think and speak in some measure in metaphor (as above), similes (in which disparate things are compared—this blog post is like a gift from God), idiom (a phrase or sentence that has a meaning not directly communicated by its component words), and clichés (any of the following that have been used too often, especially if they’re often misused), though as Mark Abley postulated in “Clichés As a Political Tool,”:

Sometimes the line between idiom and cliché gets blurred. On lists of clichés, I’ve found expressions like “cut off your nose to spite your face,” “a leopard cannot change its spots,” “wear your heart on your sleeve,” and “a few sandwiches short of a picnic.” But are these really clichés?

I don’t think so. If all those expressions were clichés, we could come under fire for speaking in any kind of figurative terms. The distinction between an idiom and a cliché is partly subjective, but it also depends on the rate and type of usage. For an idiom to be broadly understood, it needs to be occasionally heard or read. All four of those expressions would bemuse a newcomer to English. They make sense to us only because we’ve met them before.

So then, yes, we all know what people mean when they say “a leopard cannot change its spots,” but what if your characters live in a world without leopards? Or golf or picnics, or… It means you’re going to have to give them their own idiom, even their own clichés (maybe communicated by another character rolling his eyes), world-specific similes (as big as a blorgath in heat), and as Samantha Harvey suggests, metaphors that make sense not just for the world (which may not include buildings as tall as fifty storeys) but for the specific POV character, who should be comparing a present experience with a past experience of their own, or with some clearly common experience. This is how characters start to inhabit your world, their world, and precious little detail is required. J.R.R. Tolkien said in “On Fairy Stories”:

If [literature] speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show ”a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own.

To that end, here are a few examples of authors who’ve put their POV characters deeply into a moment, with only necessary procedural detail (she walked to the six foot by eight foot window three feet from the northwest corner of the third room down the hall from the stairs).

First, a human observes another human he does not know, but makes observations and assumptions about her based on the time, location, and circumstances of the world around him, along with his life experiences and psychological quirks, hood, bad, or indifferent, from “No One Here is Going to Save You” by Julian Zabalbeascoa

Down where the hallway intersected with another, three women on their hands and knees scrubbed the concrete tiles with soapy rags while two guards I didn’t recognize stood near them. One of the women had large breasts that moved from side to side under her shirt as she scrubbed. Stooped over, her shirt was open at the neck, and I squinted to see if the Falangist brand of the yoke and arrows had been seared onto her chest above her heart, knowing what it meant if it had. One of the guards tapped her backside with his foot and instructed her to put more soap on her rag. When she sat up to soak it in the bucket, two large wet circles on her shirt spread from her nipples. The fabric clung to her. She looked in my direction, not at me but past me, and I wondered if the infant that had been taken from her—surely it was with the nuns now—would keep her from sitting on a window’s ledge or ultimately push her off of it. I saw the hard corner of Father Muñoz’s desk. I wished I could tell her the child would be fine, sensed that she needed this assurance from someone, but I couldn’t provide it.

And have I forgotten hyperbole? That’s when you describe an ordinary salesclerk as a demigod, as Vladimir Nabokov did in “Details of a Sunset”:

Through this mirrory darkness he staggered home: Mark Standfuss, a salesclerk, a demigod, fair-haired Mark, a lucky fellow with a high starched collar. At the back of his neck, above the white line of that collar, his hair ended in a funny, boyish little tag that had escaped the barber’s scissors. That little tag was what made Klara fall in love with him, and she swore that it was true love, that she had quite forgotten the handsome ruined foreigner who last year had rented a room from her mother, Frau Heise.

This is actually too huge a subject for a blog post. It may well be the wall that separates “good” and “bad” fiction, if such a wall exists. I could keep going for at least a book’s worth of advice on this subject and who knows, maybe I will…

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to WRITE WHAT YOUR CHARACTERS KNOW

  1. Nicolette Kirsty Chinomona says:

    This was a great article and gave me so much to think about, over the past few weeks i have found myself fearing “writing what i know” as the world I am creating is all in my head, so this was what I needed to read right now, and it was very reassuring and comforting.

  2. Pingback: WHOSE POV SHOULD IT BE? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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