It’s a gate. It’s a place to start, whether you’re describing a character or a place or an action. And you know more than you think.
Especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Because then you’re free to make up the things you know from whole cloth in a few spots, maybe many. That’s a privilege other genres don’t have like we get in SFFPHM (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Magical realism). Other writers might make up a town or something, but their worlds are expected to act totally like the real world.
Settings aside, writing what you know also doesn’t mean every character has to be a writer or a retail person or a middle manager or whatever variety of things it might be that you do with your lifetime. Doesn’t mean all your aliens need to know what it’s like to poop or vomit. Doesn’t mean that your orcs need to be the orcs you know from all those movies with the really short dudes and a jewelry fetish.
Write what you know is great for writing the human bit of your story, though it’s a damn good thing to remember that if you’re writing about a culture or subculture you’re not familiar with, it’s best to consult members of that culture. Unless it’s elves. You’re not going to find any real elves to consult about your fictional ones, I’m afraid. HOWEVER that said if you’re going to base your elves’ culture strongly on the culture of southern Spain, you’d better be familiar with southern Spain in some significant way.
’nuff said. I’ve already harped on that enough and I hope you were listening.
Write what you know means the practical simple things around you, sure. Do use your memories, your pain, your joy, things that happened to you, places and people you’ve met (though tread lightly when writing a person who’s close to you lest ye complicate yer relationship).
Use the things that made you grieve. Use the things that made you weep with joy. You can choose not to reveal that those things came from within yourself if that’s what you want or need to do. Do use your writerly skills to file the serial numbers off them.
Write things you know you can feel. Because feeling (Hemingway would say, did say, bleeding) on the page speaks to readers. It can reach into your readers’ hearts where mere skill can only titillate their minds.
There are plenty of successful authors who do the latter. But the stories that do the former are remembered. They change minds and sometimes lives.
Don’t think it’s easy, though. No author succeeds at that every time. In fact, I think it’s an ideal that is rarely reached.
Do reach for it.
In my last post, EAT SCIENCE FICTION (link opens in new tab), I discussed the role of food in fiction, especially science fiction. I focused on the social element of eating meals and the way food and smells of food can evoke memories and feelings in us and in our readers when we include food in our fiction.
There’s another important aspect of food in fiction, too. One that’s very important to the writer. Food is a good element to use to evoke and to flesh out characters and settings. Just as describing the warm kitchen-filling smell of a hot and gooey baked macaroni and cheese can evoke cozy feelings of family and friendship in your readers, it can also be the touch that nails down a character’s nurturing trait (who doesn’t feel cared for with a slab of baked macaroni and cheese set before them?) or makes the scene of a family get-together feel real.
Think about the role that food plays in real life settings. If we travel to Maine, we look for a lobster roll. In New Orleans, you have to try the jambalaya, the beignets, seek out an oyster po’boy. A trip to Chicago calls for a deep dish pizza, or at least a Chicago dog. If you traveled abroad, wouldn’t you seek out the local cuisines? Or maybe you’re someone who craves a reminder of home in a strange land, and in the middle of Beijing you’d seek out a handy McDonalds. Foods are part of places for us, and how we relate to them says something about us as people. Consider that last example, an American in Beijing. The McDonalds seeker might be prone to homesickness, might be timid in the face of the different, or might be stuck on notions of cultural superiority, thinking that an American burger must be better than whatever these different people think is good food.
Your story and dialogue (internal and external) sort out those differences in character traits. Food can be a good way to introduce or emphasize them. Same goes with settings. Maybe your story is set in Chicago. You name the city. Maybe the action touches on the Loop, Lake Michigan and Navy Pier, the river running through the middle of the city, the tall buildings, the traffic, the sprawling suburbs, the harsh consonants of the natives, the snowy winters. Great! All of that says Chicago. Fiction is about details, and the details can make the difference between a good story and a great, engaging story. If your Chesapeake Bay native bemoans the difficulty of finding fresh soft shell crab in Chicago, that can be a valuable detail that makes that character live for the reader. And if you’re writing SciFi, maybe your Earthling character misses cheesy, crusty deep dish pizza on a world full of carnivores. Maybe, like in Niven’s Ringworld books, your carnivores complain a bit about having to microwave their meat to make it blood-warm, instead of consuming it still living. Think of the way that the differences between klingons and Federation humans are outlined by a scene where the humans are offered klingon delicacies. We know they’re different—just look at those foreheads and costumes. But the food really drives the differences home, doesn’t it? As another example, I’m also reminded of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, in which noodles eaten with chopsticks become food shorthand for ‘look at all of the Japanese and Chinese influence going on around this place, huh?’ It’s hardly the only detail that says that, but it’s a good one, and it delivers its message well when it appears. Often, it also says ‘these guys are pretty poor, they end up eating cheap noodles a lot.’ Food is a complex thing; it can deliver multiple messages simultaneously.
I’m not saying there has to be food involved in a story to define your characters and settings; good stories have been written in which food makes no appearance at all, and more of them will appear in the future. I’m just saying, food is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox.
Occasionally, on Twitter or on one online forum or another, I’ll see writers discussing character descriptions. As a reader, I read plenty of them, too.
The discussions are usually about how much to describe characters. Should I tell the reader what color her eyes are? What color his hair is, how it curls up a bit at the ends, that it’s shoulder length, how it blows in the soft breeze with a curl falling almost but not quite across one eye? Should I tell them how much my badass ex-special-forces mercenary weighs, that it’s pure muscle and hardly any body fat, how tall he is? He’s really tall? Maybe how big around his biceps are… do I use inches, centimeters, or what? Should I tell them how big the female lead’s boobs are? Like, cup size? I’m pretty sure I should.
Oh, no. No, no, no. Please no.
Look, there’s a time and a place for these things. And a lot of descriptions are described for the wrong reasons. As writers, we tend to have an idea of what our characters look like. The more often we use the character, the stronger that idea is. And it’s tempting to want to pass that full vision on to the reader. Hey, did I tell you that Protagonist X has really hairy forearms? I always imagined him with really hairy forearms. But, alas, the reader doesn’t care that much.
Probably because the reader is building his or her own picture of the characters.
There are other reasons characters are over-described, other than the eagerness of the writer to transmit an imaginary photograph from his head to yours. Some of us, especially in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, have played role-playing games before, where you describe your character on a sheet of paper — height, weight, typical clothing, distinguishing marks such as scars and tattoos, hair and eye color, and so forth. The ‘character sheet’ is also a writing exercise that crops up from time to time in workshops and classrooms. Character sheets are not a bad thing. But most of what’s on that sheet, in my minimalist-friendly opinion, is for the writer, not the reader. Some of those details might crop up in the progress of the story. It suddenly becomes relevant that Protagonist Y is a tiny woman, not even five feet tall and elfin-thin, because that’s what allows her to shimmy under a low-slung sportscar where the baddies pursuing her would never think a person could hide. Maybe her cup size does matter — if you’re writing erotica. Ditto for the dimensions of Protagonist Z’s schlong. Erotica, goes with the territory. Much of any genre else, you just look like a big fat sexist. Maybe a couple of characters meet via blind date or similar, and a couple of details are the recognition key — “Look for a tall guy with a big afro wearing Western boots with Cuban heels and a vintage white Megadeth concert tee from the late 1980s. I’m pretty distinctive.”
There’s a time and a place for physical description, and in my opinion it’s mostly in the head of the author, outside of some pretty unusual circumstances.
So why do I write characters this way? Thinking of stories I’ve recently worked on, for example, the physically describing details I attached to one character were that his jeans were worn and soft and old, torn, revealing a single thin and bony knee. That’s it for him. He’s a he, his jeans are old, and one of his knees is knobby. And this was a significant character, not a one-scene background throwaway.
My theory goes like this: most of the picture a reader forms of a character is based on what happens in the story. Worn jeans, thin bony knee, some moderately whiny dialogue, a southwestern desert setting, the fact that he and she (the other primary character, the protagonist) drive out of the city where they work writing ad copy… all these circumstances attach to things in the mind of the reader. They attach to templates — southwestern. City folks visiting a rural setting. Might be a bit awkward, a bit sightsee-y. Writers — maybe a bit casual, maybe a little unconventional. Ad copy isn’t the most exciting job ever, doesn’t sound too highly paid — now we have the reader’s vision of class influence on appearance. She cuts a few Spanish words in with her dialogue, he doesn’t. The reader who notices this has a new bit to add as to their appearances. I don’t tell them how — everyone adds their own impression. Maybe for some it influences their ideas about how these two look, maybe for some it influences how they act, how they move, stand, speak, go about their regular lives; in real life, this tells you far more about a person than just physical description, and it’s far more nebulous. Unless you’re Sherlock Holmes, you’re influenced in your impression of a person far more by cues other than things like height, weight, hairstyle, and so on, and you don’t know what specific things produced those impressions. I do use the odd physical characteristic, but I tend not to be precise. I think precision burdens the reader. When I read, I don’t care that some guy is six-foot-five, two hundred and fifty pounds, and has seven percent body fat. When I write, that guy is “Protagonist A stood up; he had shoulders like a bull. The pickpocket cowered, dwarfed.” And that’s how I like to read, too. I tend to skim over long descriptions and move on to what the characters do, how they speak to each other, what their interior monologues are like. That tells me way more about the character.
What I find when I read books with characters that stay with me, is that they tend to be described similarly. Bare sketches of physical detail that are more about the characters themselves than their physical appearances. The action and dialogue tell you about the character. Take Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example.Paul Atreides is described on the first page by his age, fifteen, and by his mother and Reverend Mother Mohiam discussing the fact that he’s small for his age. That’s all we get. The Reverend Mother is “a bulky female shape” with eyes that are “bird-bright ovals” and “glittering jewels”. Her hair is “like matted spiderwebs”.
Which brings in another aspect of describing a character: your characters are part of the setting, and your setting delivers the feel of the story to the reader. Reverent Mother is spooky. That spiderweb hair — is it white, gray, straight, curled, really long, slightly long? We don’t know. We don’t care. She’s creepy and Paul is creeped out by her and her presence. What color are “bird-bright ovals?” What kind of “glittering jewels?” So many times we’re tempted to make the glittering jewels tell what color those eyes are. Well, do we care? Eye color doesn’t matter much until later in Dune, and then everyone’s eyes are spiced-out blue. So we don’t care, Herbert doesn’t care, what color the eyes are until it matters. Right now, at the open of the story, Paul is unsettled by those piercing eyes, and so we get two descriptions of them that tell us nothing about how they look and everything about how they make Paul feel.
And feelings are way, WAY, WAY more important to your story than how much so-and-so weighs or what color what’s-her-name’s hair is.