How Our Experiences Improve Our Writing

Back in 2022 I wrote a blog entry about writing what you know. You can find that entry here if you're interested.The essence of the article was that as a fictional author you do not have to be an expert in something to write about it but that there is also a level of respect in knowing what you don't know enough about to not write about those things.

And while I still firmly believe what I wrote 2 years ago in that first article, a recent exchange I had with another author has compelled me to expand on that subject somewhat with a related topic. As this blog's title suggests, it has to do about personal experiences meshing with our writing.

It goes back to that original adage of "write what you know".

This other author had recently dealt with a very deep and painful personal loss of a close family member. I won't reveal the author's name or the nature of the loss they suffered but know that it was a loss that would hurt most of us very deeply. This wasn't the loss of a 2nd cousin-twice-removed's ex-wife's new mother-in-law. This was something much more significant that stirred within them a wealth of emotions that would take time to process.

For those that know me well, they'll back me up when I say I'm not the most empathetic person there is. Emotions and social cues aren't something I excel at and never have. There are those around me who feel confident that I'm on the spectrum for Autism/Asperger's like my oldest son. This might explain that lack of empathy and struggles to comprehend certain emotional aspects but I'm not going to fret of it.

Regardless of any condition I might be afflicted with, I tried in my own way to offer my condolences to this author while continuing to provide support and information on other topics that we had been discussing. What else do you really say to someone in that situation? I don't know so I just said what I thought was appropriate.

But I digress. This article isn't about my abilities, or probable inabilities, to process other people's emotions. It is about writing.

This author had mentioned that their writing had been put on hold due to nature of events that led to their loss. There was a desire to get back to writing new content but there was still things left to deal with before that could happen.

As we chatted about these things, I suggested that while they're going through those processes to not fight the emotions that come up. Firstly, letting your emotions out is a healthy thing (I'm told) in these cases and helps you to process the situation as opposed to keeping things bottled up only to have them explode later in a way that might be more harmful than anything else. Secondly, by experiencing those emotions they might inspire the author to take those experiences and use them as inspiration for their stories.

Now, hear me out on this.

If you have a character in a story with a tragic background like fighting to avenge the loss of murdered family member, a family member stricken with a grave illness to which they must find a cure, someone close to them has gone missing and the character suspects foul play, or anything of the can use your own experiences with loss to impart upon your character's emotions, words, thoughts, and actions your own feelings, words, thoughts, and actions.

Of course, it doesn't have to be an exact match of scenarios to do this. If you've had a close friend or family member die of cancer then you've experienced sadness, and perhaps anger and helplessness at the idea of watching this beloved individual be taken by a callous disease that you could do nothing about. But your character doesn't have to deal with that exact scenario. Maybe instead their sibling was cursed, poisoned, or simply stricken by some other disease that left them incapacitated and leading towards death. Your experience would strongly parallel that of your characters so infusing their story with your experiences can make their journey a better piece of writing.

Think about it, when we read books, watch movies, listen to audiobooks, we want to find a connection with the characters. The ones we like the most are the ones that we can relate to the best. We look for flaws that we might share with the characters because their stories help us feel less alone. We look for the commendable facets of their personality as perhaps a confirmation of our desire to do similar things or as inspiration to be more like them.

We look for the characters and associate better with the characters that are more like us or who we want to be.

And we are people full of emotions. Full of ups and downs. Full of loss and gain. Full of sadness and joy. Full of anger and peace. Full of hate and love. Full of jealousy and ego. Full of wanting and sharing. And so much more.

If we want our characters to be believable then they too must share with us these emotions. But just like in reality, your characters should have a mix of these emotions. Some experience more loss than others and this affects their background, their personality, their decision making. Some experience jealousy more strongly than others and this affects their relationships. Some experience anger more than others which gets them into and/or out of more fights than others.

We all know people who are hot-heads but not everyone we know is a hot-head. Some might be hopeless romantics. Others might be charismatic where others are depressed or stand-offish. And it's important that when we create characters for our stories that our characters have a mix of personalities too. What fun is it to have a dozen characters with no emotions or all the same emotion? That's not our real experience with a group of people or even our own emotions that are subject to change from moment to moment.

So by applying our own emotional experiences, whether they are our experiences with our own emotions or our experiences with the emotions of others, we as authors can create more realistic and relatable characters. The amount of sincerity that will pervade throughout your writing will increase significantly. You can make characters are that more endearing to or more despised by your readers by leveraging the emotions that we all know and feel to extract the emotions from your readers that you want them to experience with your characters.

Now, I'm not trying to deflect from the other author's loss, sadness, or pain. I'm not trying to minimize their feelings or somehow try to twist the circumstances into making them think that their loss is a good thing. Don't get it twisted. All I want to say is that even though bad things happen to each of us that it doesn't mean that we can't find a way to use that negative experience and negative emotional state to our writing benefit later. Actors commonly talk of how they reflect on sad moments in their past to help them cry on command. Why should it be any different for an author to reflect on moments in their own history where they felt a certain way that they want to convey in their story to help them better articulate that moment?

As authors, we shouldn't refrain from using our own emotions and past when telling a story. If anything, we should embrace them. We know nothing better than how certain events in our lives made us feel. Draw on those memories and emotions to convey a level of authenticity in your writing that will draw your readers in. Let them bond with your characters just as you did in their creation. Help your readers feel what you felt when crafting your tale.

Your finished product and your readers will thank you for it.

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