by John Ostrander
The most oft repeated dictum about writing that I’ve heard is: Write What You Know. The question is – what do you know? To take a literal meaning to the question suggests that you can only write within your own experiences which is awfully limiting. I’m a white middle class male and yet I created Amanda Waller who is black, female, and from the projects. What did I know that allowed me to do that? And yet, Amanda is one of the best, most realized, characters I’ve ever created.
My view of Write What You Know is – what do you KNOW as opposed to what you were TAUGHT. What has your own experience taught you to be true? An unquestioned belief, in my opinion, is not worth having. Only by testing that belief – by doubting, questioning – does a belief become your own even if you come to the same belief that you started with. Now it’s your own.
What do you know of life? Not what you were told or taught but what have you experienced? What do you know that is true? That should be in your writing.
For example, take Character. For me, the essence of character is to be found in contradiction. Take a piece of paper. On the left hand side, list a series of attributes. Such as:
In other words, a Boy Scout.
On the right hand side of the page, write down the opposite of what you wrote on the left hand side. You cannot use un-.dis-, or ir-. In other words, no Unfriendly for Friendly. Be creative in your choice of words. With “Clean”, what do you mean? It’s how YOU define the word; it’s what that word means to YOU. How does it resonate? Be creative.
If everything you wrote on the left hand side of the page is true, then in some way, in some place, everything on the right hand side is also true. I have invariably found that the essence of character is found in contradiction. Again, it’s how you define those words. What do you MEAN by them? HOW are they true?
No one is all one thing all the time. Our personal characters are tidal; they ebb and flow. The sea is always the sea but is also always in motion and so are our natures. What is true of us should be true in our characters.
However, we don’t show all those aspects of ourselves every moment of the day or night. Different people, different circumstances, bring out different aspects of ourselves and should do the same with the people we create.
That’s part of the purpose of the supporting characters. Different people in your lives bring out different aspects of your own character. There was this guy I knew many years ago who I just did not like and for a long time I didn’t know why. He wasn’t a bad guy but I just felt uncomfortable around him. I finally figured out that it was because he mirrored sides of me that I did not like, that I was uncomfortable having.
Circumstances and events can also bring out different sides of you. Kim used to ask me how I would react in such and such a circumstance; I told her I wouldn’t know until I got there. We like to think we know what we would feel or how we react in a given situation but the truth is we only know how we think we would behave or how we’d like to believe we would act. You can’t know for sure until you’re actually in the situation.
So – how do we show all these contradictory emotions in a story? First of all, you use one at a time. In a comic, that might be for one panel. Try to use more than one in a panel muddies the story and makes it unclear. One at a time, please.
That said, you can switch to a completely different emotion in the next panel. Don’t try to “transition” from one feeling to the other. I’ve seen inexperienced writers do it; I’ve seen inexperienced actors do it. The ones who don’t do it are people in real life; the emotions flow, one to the next. Something hits you, you react. That’s what you want in your story.
What makes a person or a character react, have a certain emotion, tells you something about them just as it does in real life. What annoys you, either a situation or a person? You can go further – why does that person or situation annoy you? Every writer is something of a detective; you follow the clues to get a clearer picture of the character you’re writing. Do it right and so will your reader. That’s something that you want.
Do you have to create a character this way? Of course not. Different writers have different methods. You can do it completely by mechanics. I was once watching an interview on TV and a writer told his acolytes that the first thing you needed was a good name. I threw things at the TV.
I like stories that seem to emanate from character. Learning something from a well rounded and created story can tell me something about myself or the people around me. It makes, I believe, for a better story.
Writing a better story? That’s the job.
John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but now John’s back with a new column at a new blog, PopCultureSquad, where this piece first appeared (with lots of pictures even). You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE