Fellow writers, know this: you will never get to experience all of the things your characters experience.
And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking thank goodness for that, since, you know, I write tragedies. But there is one major problem here. If you have no idea what it’s like to be in their situation, how are you meant to write about it?
This is something I’ve thought about for a while because many people’s reason for discounting teenage writers is that we ‘haven’t got the life experience to write about life’. Apparently, because we haven’t been through heartbreak and grief and massive anxieties, we can’t write (and this in itself is a stereotype, since many people my age have been through all of those things).
This isn’t true. This is completely wrong.
Whether you’re 10 or 70 years old, you’re never going to go through everything that a character goes through (unless you are incredibly unlucky). And that doesn’t matter.
A very long time ago, I wrote a post for Mark Williams International which he hasn’t (yet) run. So I’m going to steal some aspects of it and elaborate on them.
There is nothing I find harder in writing than looking through the eyes of someone completely different to me.
But even though I haven’t had the same experiences as my characters, I’ve had experiences. They might not have been dramatic, but I’ve had them – and they’re the first and they’re all new, and hey, hormones make everything seem worse. I’ve felt pain and loss and separation. Characters lose parents and siblings and friends; I’ve lost grandparents, the people who spoiled me and encouraged me and took photos of me while I was eating. I’ve felt how difficult it is to make decisions. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had no idea what to do or who to ask.
I’ve felt those things.
Young people’s imaginations are generally more powerful than adults’. What we haven’t felt ourselves, we can imagine, or we’ve read about.
About a year ago, I was having a seriously hard time when it came to understanding my own emotions. Part of adolescence, I guess. I was pretty sure I’d never felt like that before, that it was all new. But a while later I was going through my computer and found some old diary entries from 2008. Reading them I saw words on paper that summed up exactly what I was feeling. I knew that when I wrote them, I was imagining it. But three years later, those words were true.
I’d understood emotions before I’d even had them.
And it’s the same with situations and events we’ll never go through. We can compare to them to what we have experienced and we can imagine what they’re like for people in a dramatised version.
No, I haven’t lost my sister. But I lost first my grandfather and then, a year and a half later, my grandmother. I know grief.
No, I’ve never ‘fallen in love’, in the permanent sense of the word. But I’ve had feelings for people. I know what that feels like.
No, I’ve never gone through a divorce or a break-up, but I’ve lost friends and ‘more-than-friends’ to arguments about silly things, to fights I could’ve prevented if I’d been less selfish. I’ve blamed myself and blamed them. I know what that feels like.
No, I’ve never had an absolute identity crisis, but I’ve felt doubt. I’ve been uncertain and unsure with no one to ask.
I’ve never done magic but I’ve written books and played music. I’ve never been a soldier but I force myself through ballet training. I’ve never met a rebel fairy but I’ve been friends with the outcasts and the unpopular kids. I’ve never tried to commit suicide but I’ve persuaded others not to. I never used a knife, but even so I used to self harm. I’ve never been cast out, but I was bullied when I first came to my school.
In the end, the experiences I have had are more important for writing than the ones I haven’t had.
I can take what I know, and use it to imagine what I don’t.
*the title of this post is a reference to ‘Ballad’ by Maggie Stiefvater, in which Nuala says she wants to be a movie director – “All those lives played out, with music in the background. It’s like living a thousand lives without ever leaving yours.” This for me totally sums up any storytelling process.