Since I started writing, I’ve put a lot of effort into trying to understand the craft. I was a late starter and needed to catch up. I’ve talked to other writers as well as reading dozens of books on writing and hundreds of author’s blogs; it quickly became clear that there weren’t any fixed rules. That is, I suspect, one of the things which attracted me to writing in the first place.
There are a few reasonably consistent guidelines however, and among the most quoted is ‘write what you know’. But how does that work if you’re a man and your character decides to be a woman?
I know a lot of women, but that doesn’t translate into knowing how women think or feel. Anyone who has seen me and my wife enjoying lively ‘differences of opinion’ would testify to the fact that I haven’t cracked that timeless problem.
Writing a woman character seems to be something a little different and, while I am sure that I often get it wrong, many women who’ve read my books have been kind enough to tell me that my female protagonists come across as real characters who they can identify with, and care about.
So how does that work? I don’t ‘know’ women any more than any other man, but I seem to be able to write as one?
My theory starts with a bit of healthy cynicism about advice. Perhaps ‘write what you know’ is just a glib, simplistic maxim made by a lazy person who wanted to appear wise?
Unfortunately it’s attributed to Mark Twain, so that doesn’t sound right, but maybe it was simply that he was having a bad day?
On the other hand, Toni Morrison said; ‘People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.’
I think I prefer Toni’s version!
Going back to how (and why) I write a lot of female characters, I see two possibilities: either I have a surprisingly well-developed female side to my character or I have read a lot of books by women authors with girls and women as protagonists.
The first theory is unfortunately (or fortunately) rather far-fetched, but I do think that I’ve always been fairly open-minded about the books I’ve read, and I suspect that has had a much greater impact than I would have imagined.
In conclusion, the right piece of advice may not be ‘write what you know’, but rather ‘write what you read.’