Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Truth in Fiction

Question of the day: I wrote a NaNoWriMo novel whose plot basically consisted of Experiences That I Know Well Enough to Write About. After getting deep into serious revisions, along came Big, High-Concept Idea-- one that intrigues me more, but I feel I would be BSing my way through because it isn't in any way based on my personal experience (except as a closeted celebrity stalker). How crucial do you think it is to channel personal experiences into your novels? I'm torn because I think I write more convincingly about things I've experienced, but I'm probably screwing myself by FORCING marathoning, teaching, and cat ownership into plots just BECAUSE I've experienced them. I know you emphasize that your novels aren't based on your life, but at the same time you write about women who are in broad strokes similar to you-- I'm thinking of writing about characters caught up in an utterly different world.

This is a good question, and I've touched a little bit on it before. I think you absolutely DO NOT need to write about experiences that mimic your own life experiences. Right now, my current protagonist is very, very different than I am, and her world is set in one that I've never experienced: small town, claustrophobic, limited choices, very different marriage than my own, hobbies that I, personally, have never taken an interest in, a family dynamic totally unlike my own. But the beauty of writing something outside of your personal scope of knowledge is that these days, with the help of the internet, it's not that difficult to do enough research on whatever sort of life you put your characters into, that you can really have an understanding of their situations. (Which I'm doing in my current book with things like infertility and my heroine's love of photography.)

Another example of this is the fact that I had limited experience with cancer when I wrote The Department, and certainly, no first-hand knowledge. I tracked down oncologists, spoke to patients, etc, and found a way to incorporate this research into the book pretty fluidly WITHOUT it having anything to do with my real life. The same held for her job in politics. Ditto Jillian from Time of My Life working at an advertising firm. Again, no previous knowledge of it before I started writing, but I knew it was the best thing for the character. (Because, let's be honest, if I were writing from personal experience, all of my characters would be freelance writers who work from home!) And, um, obviously, I've never gone back in time. :)

I think, and I've said this before, the key to creating a realistic, albeit fiction, world is to have an EMOTIONAL connection with your characters and their struggles. Again, I have very little in common with Tilly, my current WIP protagonist, but I do understand her desire to control her life, control her future, and that's our shared connection. With Natalie from The Department, I understood her bull-headedness and her interest in exploring her past to improve her future. With Jillian, I connected with her "what ifs," even though I'm content with my own life. Right now, with Tilly, it's enough for me to delve inside her brain and her world, and hopefully, bring her to a multi-dimensional, full-fleshed out life. So, I say, go for it! Start anew on that BIG concept and see where it leads you.

Readers, how much in common do you have with your own characters?


CC said...

I think that this post is exactly what I needed. Mostly I think it shows how advanced you are as a writer when you are able to reach outside your scope of knowledge, something that I still have not attempted.
I tend to write what I know, but thank you for the motivation to at least try!

I have only read one of your books, and now I am hooked.

Maya / מיה said...

Thanks so much for giving my question such a good answer! That emotional connection is so important... and I, too, think that's exactly what I needed to hear.


Anonymous said...

I always hear that the first novel is usually autobiographical, which is why so many novelists face sophomore slump. But then you have people like Arthur Golden, who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha... so I guess it depends on the writer.
I have a lot in common with my main characters, but like you, Allison, I research and talk to folks in occupations I find interesting so I can weave that into the lives of my protagonists. My typical day -- changing diapers, driving the older kids to school -- isn't quite bestseller material.
I think the most consistent aspect of books tends to be the "voice" of the writer, which has been described as the writer's personality shining through on the page. I'm sure some writers are more adept than others at changing their voices depending on what they are trying to achieve in their books. But for me, my writing voice is pretty similar to my spoken one.

Anonymous said...

Some of my characters are drawn from life but some just show up and demand to be written about or included and I don't know where the hell they came from.

I think it's always a good idea to go with a big idea even if it's outside the realm of what you literally know.

Unknown said...

Ooh, great question. My protagonist/narrator is a socially awkward young woman with Asperger's syndrome and an overbearing sister who has just lost her parents in an accident. I'm a gregarious thirtyish woman with no sisters and two living parents, plus a husband and a wide circle of friends. She's deeply isolated from the world; I'm deeply engaged with the world. But I work my way into her character through a combination of research and imagination. And we have this in common: we love to cook. So the painstaking description of how to supreme an orange comes from me, but the sad, panicked retreat during which she *imagines* supreming an orange to calm herself down, that's made up.