Emotions can sometimes overwhelm us. Happiness, sadness, anger, jealousy, surprise: these are emotions all human beings (except sociopaths) deal with on a daily basis. It is these emotions that make us uniquely human, for as far as we know, as we don’t know them yet, aliens can’t be included in the equation. At the time, sadness over a death (RIP) or a job loss or whatever; these things affect us like no other creature. When someone is jealous, or depressed, or furious, it takes over all other emotions. As writers, we have to make the most of these emotions in order to create convincing characters, a realistic setting, and a probable plot line. If we’ve experienced something, we know the emotions associated with it. We know how the characters would react.
Throughout my university degree, I was told to write about what I knew. If you wrote about a place you’d never been to before, or about an intergalactic alien battle, you had nothing to base it on—nothing that you’ve properly experienced. Sometimes this can be utterly ridiculous: many writers write about things that have never happened to them. Stephen King never walked from Maine to Massachusetts in a dystopian United States. Chuck Palahniuk probably never set his apartment on fire to escape the so-called American Dream. J.K Rowling didn’t defeat an almost immortal dark wizard when she was seventeen.
On the other hand, experiences can help us write about something better. Someone who has dealt with emotional abuse, has lived in a war-torn country, or actually has experience with BDSM, for example; these people will be able to write about it better. Being emotionally invested in an issue helps you spread reliable facts about the topic to people. You don’t have to bullshit everything. It also has downsides. Being too emotionally invested in a topic means you can become blindsided and dramatic. You alienate the reader. You’re too scared to publish the work (as is the case of my third year university creative nonfiction piece). The whirlwind of emotions that led you to writing the piece in the first place are now going “F— you! I just want to remain in your cupboard or on your ten year old USB for decades to come!” Hence, I’ve come full circle pretty early into this blog post.
What I’m trying to say is: writing about what you know is helpful, and it offers a realistic portrayal. However, it isn’t necessary. Yes, I’m going against my university tutors (Yikes). There are upsides and downsides that pretty much negate each other. If you’ve had something so life changing happen to you, that all you can think about is writing about that, then go ahead! I’m not stopping you. Life experiences are necessary for creative nonfiction and fiction. Where would we be without The Diary of a Young Girl and other war stories, or thousands of other true life novels littering our bookstores and eBookstores (I’m not sure if that’s a commonly used word, but it is now)?
I’m not talking about those sorts of people. I’m talking about the people with dull, typical 9-to-5 lifestyles, whose most exciting part of the day is beeping their horn at a crappy driver on the slow morning crawl to work. Unless you’re writing an expose about that life, then please don’t. I could also be talking about people with interesting life stories. Emotional investment is a good thing, most of the time, until you start killing beta-readers who disagreed with Chapter 7 (Please don’t).
Overall, what I’m trying to say is (there I go again): While you don’t have to write about what you know, because space operas and 14th century erotica and supernatural love triangles wouldn’t exist otherwise—try and write a bit realistically. Make you characters react rationally; don’t have a teenage girl go “Oh, you’re a necrophiliac dentist, but you’re rich, so it’s hot”, because 9 times out of 10, a teenager wouldn’t react like that. Someone dealing with extreme trauma or PTSD wouldn’t just take things casually. Your protagonist would probably became an intolerable airhead if he learned he was the Chosen One. Things like that.
Basically, stop trying to make characters one-dimensional zombies. While they can’t be 600K+-dimensional like humans, they shouldn’t be dull. Keep writing about what you know, or what you don’t (but you’ve done some research). Emotions are a complex part of human behaviour, not easily defined Don’t ignore them.
As a side note, my short story Resistance is Futile has been published in the online speculative fiction journal The WiFiles. The story is set in a dystopian world where being normal is all that matters, until that normal world is challenged by an unassuming girl from the picture-perfect protagonist’s past. You can read it here.
This post is dedicated to a great man, who kept his friendly, larrikin spirit right up until the very end, and will always be remembered. RIP.