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On Writing without Experience

Anonymous asked: “I am writing this novel about a person who just lost their parent and their healing process. My doubt is: As I’m writing in the first person POV, is it okay if I don’t have experience there? I’m worried I might offend people who actually lost their parents.”

You don’t need to have lived your character’s life to write them accurately and appropriately. There are stories – particularly identity stories – that you cannot write unless you’ve lived it, but other than that I think most stories are fair game.

If you are writing about an experience that you have never had and maybe can’t have or won’t, then know you are treading on dangerous grounds. Writing about an experience you’ve watched a friend or a relative go through may make you feel more equipped to write about it. I think it does at least – while you may not be able to get inside their head, you know what it looks like. If you’ve talked to them about it, they may be able to provide the insight that you won’t be able to. 

I think there’s something also to experiences you can imagine. Not all situations and experiences in fiction are going to be things that a number of readers can call you out on. You might not be able to get all the details exactly right. A writer I know was once really concerned she couldn’t get all the details right about how a fight scene would go down on a private jet. She eventually decided, the number of people who would truly know whether this was possible or not was so few that it was worth keeping the scene anyway because it was cool and it was believable enough. It’s ok to make up the things that you can’t know and can’t find any place or person who’s going to be able to help you get those details right. In-flight fight scene aerodynamics I think is totally fair game to make up. Her scene wasn’t outrageous and didn’t defy physics or anything like that, so why not?

When it comes to writing real-life tragedy such as losing a loved one or having your characters get into a terrible car accident, it’s okay to write these kinds of scenes without having lived them. These are familiar types of trauma and tragedy – the big thing is to treat these kinds of events with an appropriate amount of significance. It must be something more than just a plot device to move the story along. Let your characters grieve. Give them time and space to express the emotions they need to.  If your story is solely about a character who loses her parents and the plot does not develop beyond that, it might not necessarily be a great idea. I tend to ask myself a lot – is this my story to tell? 

You can write a story about a character who loses their parents without it becoming a story solely about that loss – for instance, Harry Potter. Harry lost both his parents as a baby, his mourning his parents comes up here and there all the time. He may not remember them much, but he still misses them all the time. With that said, Harry Potter is not about a boy who lost his parents, it’s about a boy who despite not having a family who loved him, was able to go off to Hogwarts and find friends and people who cared and made him feel like he belonged. Even if you’ve never lost a parent, you could write a story like this – it is about love and belonging. 

While that is not a detail that’s lost in the Harry Potter series, it’s also not the focus. Rowling did suffer loss and this is not the best example, but there is a point: You don’t have to have experienced everything your character goes through, but you should identify with the major significant experience that defines the story – whatever that ends up being. 

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