Whatyou Know

You may have heard the old rule "Write what you know." It's what many writing teachers tell their students they must do. Here's a little anecdote that addresses that issue.

When E. L. Doctorow was being interviewed about his book Billy Bathgate—a novel about a young boy who ingratiates himself with Dutch Schultz the gangster, the interviewer asked him about a particular scene in which a veteran gangster takes the kid out in the woods, gives him a pistol, and shows him how to shoot it. The interviewer said that the scene stood out in her mind as unusually vivid and personal.

"You must've had a lot of experience with guns," she said.

What do you think Doctorow's answer was?

He said, "I've never touched a gun in my life."

"Then how could you write such a scene?" she said.

Doctorow went on to say (paraphrase), "I think about how it might feel to hold a gun, how it would probably feel, and how I imagine it would have to feel to me and how I would respond to it. Then, if I do my job well, you have the kind of response you did."

Write what you know? No. Write what you can imagine. After all, imagining is knowing—a special kind of knowing that can reveal as much or more truth than our real experience.

Then what about writing about characters who are totally different from you? Again, forget write what you know. Instead, write what you can figure out. And you can figure out most human experience. Why? Because you're human and all humans are made of the same stuff. We all start out with a full set of emotions and the same potential for good or evil, etc. We grow into adults with the same emotions and needs, except that they're in each of us to different degrees and in different amounts. Plus, we satisfy them in very different ways since our experience twists each of us into a different shape. Mother Teresa loved caring for others. Donald Trump loves making money. The hit man loves killing. It's the same emotion, but it's satisfied in different ways. In the first, it's an expression of good (Mother Teresa), and in the last it expresses evil (the hit man).

There's a little bit of everything in all of us. We all have a bit of sadism, masochism, homicide, suicide, etc., inside of us. Most, if not all, of us at some time in our lives have felt like killing someone. If you haven't, it might help to work on it. Having these urges doesn't mean that we follow through on any of them. That's what makes the difference between us and those who do awful things.

An excellent book that shows how the same psychological needs drive even the most vicious of us is Mind Hunter, by John Douglas. Douglas is the FBI agent who developed profiling to help identify and capture serial killers. There's an eerie and uncomfortable similarity between serial-killer psychology and our own. What the killers do is horrible, but it all makes complete sense once you understand their mentality. If it didn't make sense, Douglas wouldn't be able to look at a crime scene and say that the person who killed had poor communication skills and probably stuttered. He did, and he was right.

So, you shouldn't be intimidated when faced with the need to create characters you don't understand. The trick is to find a way to put yourself in their place in order to figure them out. Fine, but how do you put yourself or get yourself into their place, their frame of mind? Well, we can turn to the helping professions (social work, psychology, etc.) for some guidelines.

When working with someone who's emotionally disturbed and acting strange or crazy, there are two things to keep in mind. First, no matter how strangely someone is behaving, what they're doing makes perfect sense to them and would make sense to you if you understood how they experienced the world. There's nothing crazy about it to them. So, you need to look for the logic in the character and his actions. That's not so easy, so the second thing is to ask yourself, "What would make me act that way? What would be going on in me to make me, drive me, to do the same thing?" Answering these questions will take you close enough to create a believable character. All of our behavior (sensible, wacky, sane, crazy) obeys the same psychological principles. It's all in us. Everything is in every one of us. So look to yourself for the answers.

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