(The first official one, anyways.)
Recently, I was asked, “How much do you pull real life into your stories?” Short story short, the simple answer is “It’s complicated.” But rather than just leave my answer at that copout and give you, dear reader, a two sentence post, I decided to look deeper into the psyche of the writer within my mind, the voice that dictates what words my fingers should type.
I went home this previous weekend, which would have absolutely no relevance to this topic save for one fact: I worked up the courage to hack my way into the jungle that is my old writing folders on my desktop. Besides having to sort through dozens (and I mean dozens) of plot lines, first chapters, and the odd completed story, I started to sense a larger pattern to these pieces, all centered around the protagonist.
It seemed that no matter whether Kad was a wolf, deer, or human, he seemed to share the same character traits. First off, the name. I call the protagonist of all these works Kad (or “Kardika” in full) since, for the majority of the works that is his name. This called my attention to the larger trends below. No matter what setting, what creature, what plot, Kad always follows this blueprint:
- He has decency, manners, even friendliness to a degree, but he’s always flawed when it comes to recognizing social cues
- General apathy or misunderstanding of the social structure he lives in (wolf pack or otherwise)
- Bitterness towards unjust persecution by members of his immediate group
- His love life always nosedives, the object of his affections always ends up with another and Kad ends up forgotten
- A struggle with developing anger as the strains of those aspects listed above continue to plague him throughout the book
- Inevitably, Kad ends up either ostracized from the group or banished outright, an outcast.
At first, I blamed the cause of this on my own development as a writer. In my novice status, I’d come to rely on one single character and had been unable to break free of the habit. To a certain extent that is very true, but I stumbled upon a deeper reason amidst this journey into the past. Kardika was not just a one-dimensional character I summoned whenever I needed to churn out another tale; Kardika was me.
In my unrefined talent, I had attempted to craft characters that had increasingly drawn aspects from my own experience, until the two entities were homogenous. Every one of those ideas listed above described my life at the time these were written (3-4 years ago), and some even extend into the present. “Write what you know,” is a common expression amongst writers. I had followed that advice, yes, and in a world I struggled to understand, in a culture where I felt under attack, in a society where I’d learned how cold people could be, I turned to the one thing I understood: myself, and my anger.
It was jarring, to say the least, like looking into a mirror and finding a younger you staring back. And I could see the bags under his eyes, feel his frustration still coursing strong amongst the words. He buried his aggression in apathy, choosing indifference to a social climate he didn’t understand, try as he may to conform. I could see the alienation in his eyes, as he came to view himself as an outcast amongst his own kind. I understood it all once more. This was why most of these pieces were never finished; the truth was too hard to swallow.
So, to answer the question that spawned a page of self-reflection, if you’d asked me four years ago, I would have answered, “Too much.” But somewhere along the line, I managed to break out of this destructive cycle, and both my characters and writing evolved into something else entirely.
There is “The Lair” (a sample of which can be found here), where I drew upon a very real setting as the inspiration for the piece. Every day of senior year, I would park my car in the neighborhood alongside the high school, and every day I’d drive by the same house. Its style and paint scheme stuck out from the other cookie-cutter suburban abodes, and this was not helped by the fence that followed every inch of the sidewalk to the property line, barring any access. Combine this with the even taller fence screening the backyard from view, the trees obscuring the front of the house, and the “No Trespassing” sign. Needless to say, I gawked every time I passed it.
The peculiarity of the place led to questions, “What do they do in there?” “Why do they need all this privacy?” and so forth. I wrote “The Lair” as an answer, imagining the place as a prison of sorts for a restless spirit, its power so great that the barriers are there for the safety of outsiders. The descriptions are some of my most vivid, and I would never have been able to articulate these so well had I not already had such a good idea of the appearance in my head. “Write what you know” produced one of my finest works.
One final example of the power of real life experiences can be found in my current writing project. The War of the Rose is based off Rose Island, Rhode Island (hence the title), and the gulls that nest there in the summer months. If you read the sample of Chapter One, you’ll understand the great trial the protagonist undergoes. I can still envision the entire shoreline, from the rock where he’s perched at the beginning all the way to the dunes he drags himself to at the end. Already knowing the setting intimately allowed me to focus even more on the struggles of our friend, and this shows in its intensity.
The job of the fiction writer is to fool the reader. Our task is to break through their suspended belief and draw them into the narrative we’ve created, to make them forget that this world we’ve sculpted is, well, fiction. Details are powerful tools in this respect, helping to make the environment all the more real and vivid for our audience. Writing what you know allows you to use these details, in fact, it is almost instinctual to fall back on the familiar. That is why there is always one aspect of a story that I can relate back to my own personal narrative (if not more).
So, in answer to the question, all these paragraphs I spent forty minutes writing could be summed up to, “Depends.”