People always throw around the old advice “write what you know”. I entirely blame that single phrase for every boring, insipid, slice-of-fucking-life novel I have been forced to read. Slice of life? Slice my wrists, more like.
I hate this advice because people take it as an escape hatch. I know about being a piece of human cardboard, so I will write about that.
It’s not a prescription, people. It’s a challenge.
Write what you know? Then you better know some interesting stuff. And most people do. The average person is, frankly, not that fucking average. I have yet to meet someone who didn’t have at least one interesting thing about them. Maybe they’re an expert in knitting sock heels*, or they can name the stats of every NFL player who has ever been indicted for a major crime. People are interesting.
But tell those same people to write what they know and they gravitate towards the most boring, everyman incarnation of themselves. Because characters are supposed to be relatable.
You know what I relate to? People who do things. Instead of sitting around waiting for the plot to start, they’re out there learning to code, hiking mountains, teaching a robot to love, or perfecting their blintz recipe. They’re talking, learning, fighting, fucking. When the plot happens, it’s interrupting a life that was already in progress.
Take the advice, but take it in the spirit of learning. You want to write about a computer programmer who’s an expert on scotch? Read up on some coding languages and try a few lines. After that, get thee to the distillery or local watering hole and start trying stuff. If you’re really dedicated, you’ll learn about hangovers at the same time.
Now, some things are obviously impossible to actually learn. I’m not likely to become a sorcerer through watching YouTube videos.** You will not gain superpowers by letting radioactive spiders bite you; you will probably gain a rash, though. But those things are not all that make that character interesting. Peter Parker is Spider-Man, but he’s also a scientist, a nerd, and a photographer. Someone writing him would probably do well to crack open a few science books, or take a look at the standards in newspaper photography these days.
So, maybe it shouldn’t be “write what you know” at all. Maybe it should be “write what you can learn”.
*Seriously, there are a lot of variants. I know like 8 without even trying, and I’m not a hardcore knitter.
**Much to my chagrin, I assure you.