As writers, we write best about what we know. We can write about anything, but when we write about things we haven’t really experienced or can’t fully relate to, they come off as hollow or inaccurate.
For example, early in his career Steven Spielberg wrote and directed a movie called Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie’s main character, Roy Neary, runs into some UFO’s and begins a desperate search to find the aliens – which in the end leads him to abandon his wife and kids. Almost thirty years later, Spielberg said in an interview with Cinema Confidential that he wouldn’t have written the movie that way if he’d been a father at the time.
“That was before I had kids,” Spielberg explained, “That was 1977. So I wrote that blithely. Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family and going on the mother ship.”
Similarly, I can try to write romantic scenes in my stories, and I have on occasion. But I’ve learned that as a guy who’s never had a serious girlfriend, it will always come off as a little false.
So, what do we do about this? Not all writers are satisfied with writing characters similar to themselves, so how do we gain the experience to write about various kinds of characters?
One, we can learn the skills of good journalists. We can observe people who’ve had different experiences than we have, and ask good questions that help us discover their motivations. We can get inside their heads and learn what makes them tick.
Two, we can live life fully to write about life fully.We don’t have to go to extreme lengths to do this, that’s up to each writer. But as writers, we should be willing to live full lives. To visit places we haven’t before (faraway places or simply new ones in your own city), so we can write about places beyond our own homes. To get to know people we wouldn’t normally meet, so we can write characters who come from various backgrounds. To do things which are new and interesting, be it skydiving or trying Gouda cheese, so we can write about characters who do interesting things. To connect and be open with people, so we know what it’s like to love and to lose and feel pain at that loss.
One of my favorite quotes about any writer comes from the book jacket to The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume I. Most people know Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but he did many other things besides. The book jacket describes him this way:
“Doctor, novelist, dramatist, historian, whaler, athlete, war correspondent, and spiritualist… Conan Doyle was a vigorous and ardent lover of life.”
Doyle lived life to the fullest, and it gave him the capacity to write about life to the fullest. We should be willing to do the same.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume I. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1930. Print.