Write What You Know

Right now, I’m reading Stephen King‘s novel The Dark Half. I know, I’m kind of behind on this one. But I didn’t read my first King book until just before the miniseries version of The Stand came on TV in 1994, and as he had already been writing books for two decades, I missed many of the earlier ones. I’ve read almost everything he’s written since then (I still haven’t gotten through Lisey’s Story, and I’m waiting for the paperback of Just After Sunset),and I’ve gone back and read many — but not all — of the prior novels. Occasionally, I pick up one of those earlier books in the intention of one day completing the set.

The Dark Half, if you don’t know, is about a novelist who “kills off” the pen name under which he wrote a series of highly popular crime novels. But the nasty side of him seems to come to life as the pen name takes on a real form and decides to fight back against his own destruction. I’m a little more than halfway through the book and I’m enjoying it immensely. However, it does demonstrate something I’ve seen from King’s work over and over (and over and over) again. This book, like maybe half of his popular output, is a story about a writer.

Just like he returns to his stomping ground of Maine frequently, he also turns to writer protagonists. And very often, these protagonists struggle with alcohol problems or drugs, things that King has also publicly dealt with. It’s not really a far leap to imagine that King imagines himself in the books. From the earliest time I remember wanting to become a writer (and I can even tell you just when it happened — in Mrs. Meliff’s fifth grade Gifted and Talented class, when we were given a creative writing assignment and I discovered I could actually put my overactive imagination to a practical use, thank you Mrs. M.), the primary advice I’ve seen given to young and aspiring writers, over and over again, is “Write what you know.”

King, obviously, knows writers. He’s been one professionally for 35 years. Not to downplay his life prior to that day, but it’s pretty much his identity, and that’s a good thing. Truth is, every writer puts himself into his characters. Look at my two published books. One is about a reporter for a newsmagazine (written, it should be noted, during a time when I was a reporter for a newspaper), and the second about a filmmaker. Both, in their way, are stories about writers — one who wrote facts, one who wrote screenplays. Looking at my longer work since then, we have Summer Love, in which the protagonist is a cartoonist, another form of storytelling. My play, The 3-D Radio Show, is about a group of characters performing a radio variety show, including the ostensible writer of that show. In Lost in Silver, we follow several children who haven’t exactly found their path in life, but it would be very easy to imagine at least one of them (Benny) growing into a storyteller of some sort later in life. Only A Long November doesn’t seem to feature a storyteller in any sort of role, and that story (it can be argued) is a story about Christmas stories themselves.

There’s a very dangerous element that exists in fiction. It’s called the “Mary Sue.” If you don’t quite know what that is, in a nutshell, a “Mary Sue” is when a writer creates an idealized version of him or herself in a story, then crafts a tale which results in that character having an unrealistically perfect sort of existence.

Mary Sues are bad. They’re the mark of a lazy writer, and they invariably result in bad, banal stories. I’m not going to name names, but there’s a certain ridiculously popular vampire series that I’ve often heard accused of being the result of Mary Sueism. Right, that one. But the problem is that Mary Sues are the direct result of following that first advice ever given to writers: write what you know. In truth, the earliest characters created by any storyteller are usually Mary Sues. The first time a kid plays make-believe, he or she is making the world he wants and placing his perfect self into it. The first time most writers pick up a pen (or sit in front of a keyboard), the result is a Mary Sue tale, the vast majority of which never make it past that notebook, creative writing class, or parents’ refrigerator.

And here’s the real danger, in my mind. I honestly don’t believe it is possible to craft an interesting character that is not, at least in the smallest way, a part of yourself. The vilest monsters and the noblest heroes must be multifaceted characters, and one of those facets will be the same as one of the writer — who is neither vile nor noble, but is in fact merely human.

Sometimes a writer may not even realize they’ve created a Mary Sue, but a good one will blanch in horror when they realize it. It’s a balancing act, trying to create a character that’s interesting — which is a process that requires you to give of yourself — without simply recreating yourself. I’ll be the first to admit that Josh Corwood, protagonist of Other People’s Heroes, shares a lot of traits with who I was when I wrote that book. My friends and family often commented on that. And I’m sure some people would read that book and cry “Mary Sue.” But I don’t think he is. I tried very hard not to idealize Josh, although he is undoubtedly much braver and more clever than I am. But he’s got his flaws. He’s stubborn, sarcastic, and frequently believes he’s the smartest person in the room despite the fact that he has no idea what’s going on.

Okay, you can say the same about me sometimes.

Here’s when I really knew Josh wasn’t a Mary Sue. Three years after I finished Other People’s Heroes, I sat down and began to work on a sequel, 14 Days of Asphalt (which many of you read in its preliminary form, but will now be the process of massive, MASSIVE revisions before I show it to anyone else again). For me, it had been three years, and my life had changed considerably. Real people do that. It’s usually slow, and our deepest core may stay the same, but people can change in lots of ways. For Josh, though, it had only been a few months, and he hadn’t changed very much at all.

I began to work on the book, and I saw what happened to Josh. In the book, he did change. Good characters do. Another piece of writing advice that I believe wholeheartedly — without change, there is no story. And I flatter myself by saying it was a good, logical change. But although the person he had been was similar to the person I had been, the person Josh Corwood became was quite different from the person I had become. Okay, he still speaks with my voice — my sarcasm, my turn of phrase — but that’s one of the few things about a person that almost can’t change. At his core, he was different. He had different goals. Wanted different things. And while I fully intend to alter huge pieces of the story should 14 Days ever see print, the changes incurred by Josh aren’t among them.

And I’m proud of that.

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