Two of the most common pieces of writing advice you’ll get when you start out as a writer are write what you know and don’t insert yourself in the story. Essentially, you’re supposed to write about things you’re familiar with to keep your story authentic, but not too much, because then you’re just writing fanfic about yourself (or so I’ve heard). And finding that balance can be hard, especially for people who use writing as a catharsis like me. I’ll admit I’ve made my own fair share of mistakes along the way, but I’ve also amassed a few tips on how to toe the line a little more carefully. Here are some of them.
1: don’t make things too personal.
My first completed novel had a subplot that almost exactly mirrored a situation I’d been through in my own life a year or so before—on top of about a dozen other subplots. I don’t regret writing it in the first place, because it helped me get perspective on my own life. I do, however, regret keeping it in for as long as I did, because it was serving no purpose to the plot. I made a lot of ‘mistakes’ with that manuscript, but that was probably the biggest one.
2: be willing to kill your darlings.
Working off point #1: when someone tells you to consider cutting something out of your novel, consider it. I had multiple people—family members, friends, etc.—tell me that keeping that subplot in was just dragging the main plot down and making my story too messy. I didn’t listen until an actual literary agent told me that. By then, I was already about 25 rejections in, and I can’t help but feel that I missed a lot of opportunities because I was too stubborn to listen to advice.
3: don’t give your characters your fantasy life.
I’ve read way too many books—both online and in print—where authors give their characters the ‘perfect’ life. This is especially prevalent in YA, but I’m sure it can be found in a lot of other genres to some extent. You know what I mean—the character lives in a huge mansion and has their own car and a lot of expensive clothes and no discernable explanation for it; or instead, has parents that give them lavish gifts and let them do whatever they want, etc. I’m talking about the infamous Mary Sue character, which Wikipedia defines as an “idealized character, often but not necessarily an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment”. In my experience, it’s usually the girl who everyone gravitates towards and falls in love with even though they see themselves to be the plainest of plain.
I’m mentioning this not only because it’s unrealistic and becomes annoying after a while, but because it can also become a way for the author to live vicariously through their characters without realizing it. It’s a dangerous path to go down, and you should avoid it as best you can.
4: copy aspects, not people.
Most of the characters I write have some part of me or someone I know in them. But the key word here is ‘part’. For instance, in the story I’m writing right now one of my characters has the same identity struggles I’ve dealt with, and the other deals with some of the same mental health issues I face, though a little different. I have a side character who has my affinity for late night history documentaries and mostly useless trivia, and another who has my ADHD and knee-jerk reaction to prove she’s tough. I’ve borrowed traits from friends, too: my old roommate’s love for MMA; my best friend’s vocal quirks; and my other best friend’s love for tea and extreme hatred of coffee.
If you think you’re getting too close to real people, give them a twist. That character who likes MMA? She boxes, whereas my friend does ju-jitsu. The late-night history docs dude really likes learning about really obscure conspiracy theories (I’m more interested in cryptids, personally). There are endless possibilities.
5: do the research.
If you’re unsure of how you’re portraying something—or want to branch out a little—do your own research on it. Maybe your experience is a little more universal than you think. This might also help you understand your life a little better, too; I’ve found out a lot of terms and explanations for my own behaviour just from researching for stories.
6: don’t be afraid to try something new.
Just because you’re told to write what you know doesn’t mean you can’t go outside of the box a little. Just remember: research. Don’t know about politics in 18th century England? Research it. Boom. Now you know it. If you’re not an expert in something, try your hardest to become one.
7: if you think you’re writing a self-insert, you probably are.
Here’s a test: put your character through a variety of situations. How would they react to running into someone they haven’t seen in years at the grocery store? How do they react to things falling apart? To someone attacking them? If they react the exact same way you would, they might be a self-insert.
Do you have any other tips you use?
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