That’s me, isn’t it?
People who don’t write don’t get it. They often assume that the stories I write — the stories all writers write — are taken entirely from real life. That our characters are just people we’ve met transcribed to paper under the guise of another name and a different hair color. I’ve heard from other writers that they often have family members and friends who point themselves out in their writing. “That’s me, isn’t it?” or, “That’s so-and-so, I can tell from what he did in chapter eight. I was there when that happened.” The truth is, it is you, but it isn’t you. Just like every character I write is me and isn’t me.
What the heck does that mean?
A good writer is like a jewel thief who then makes jewelry out of her stolen jewels. She steals from real life: little moments, character traits, settings, feelings, moods, imagery. Then she turns it into something else. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster: bits of real life sewn together to make something larger and more meaningful than how the events arranged themselves in real life. The writer’s job is to write realistically without being too realistic. We eliminate the stuttering, the aimless actions; we only write action that has meaning (generally speaking). And if that’s convinced you that I’m writing about something that must have happened to me or to someone I know, then I guess I’m doing my job well.
I once told a fellow writer — a guy who was self-conscious about writing from a female perspective — that anyone who supposes you’re gay because you write a realistic woman doesn’t understand how writing works. Writing realistic characters is about empathy. It’s about understanding. And if you’re writing about something you’ve never experienced before, then sometimes the best you can do is to relate it to an experience from your own life that sparked a similar feeling. In that way, every character I write, every scene I write comes from me or an experience I’ve had, even if it’s not that experience. I use my own experiences to empathize with the characters I create. And, yes, sometimes I lift whole or nearly-whole events from my life or friends’ lives, but use them to embellish a character I’ve created, not as a way to create the character as a whole.
Voices in my head
I sometimes think I might be going crazy — what with all the voices in my head. But it’s just all the characters I meet in day-to-day life. I naturally give them voices, make them have conversations, explore their lives — things sparked from just a glance or an offhand comment or a nervous tick. Then, sometimes, someone or something else will spark my interest, and I’ll put the character I’ve just created into the environment I’ve just encountered and voila: the story begins.