Writing advice you should probably ignore

sliced avocado fruit on white surface

I’m working on a new course called Ease Into Fiction, which is designed for writers who are new to fiction and writers who want to write fiction but find it intimidating and can’t seem to move past writing about themselves. In prepping for the course, I asked writers on my Instagram to share their biggest challenges when it comes to writing fiction.

Here’s one of the responses that I got: Character Building. Fiction writers are often told that they need to know their characters, especially the main character, as intimately as they know their own children. I once heard a writer say that he could predict what breakfast his main character would eat on any given day, even if that information doesn’t make it into the story. Is there a technique that helps writers get to know their main and side characters better?

I have a lot of thoughts about this question, way more than can fit into a comment on an IG post. But it’s a great question to address in a blog post, so here we are!

Whenever I hear anyone say “writers need to” I immediately question the advice. I think my skepticism comes from discovering much of that type of advice to be untrue after writing for so many years, trying different things, and realizing that craft is often presented in very complex terms. If I’m honest, it feels like another level of gatekeeping, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Speaking to the point about being able to predict what your character ate for breakfast, I would question the purpose of knowing what your character eats for breakfast on any given day, especially if it has nothing to do with your story. I don’t know what my best friends eat for breakfast on any given day but I would say that I know them pretty well. 

I get the point of the advice though, which is to know your characters well. You should know them well enough that you understand their motivations, what pushes them and what their limits are, so that their actions in the story make sense, both to you and to the reader. 

As for what they eat for breakfast, it’s relevant in as much as it relates to what you need to know about your character in order to write a compelling story. 

If I’m writing about a character who is Indian and lives in a small town in Ontario where almost everyone is white, and she struggles with her identity and tries to erase that side of herself as much as she can, you can bet she won’t be eating daal and roti or dosas for breakfast. She’d likely eat corn flakes or fruit loops and maybe it’s something she argues with her dad about every morning, how that stuff is junk and she needs to eat real food that will sharpen her brain and all that sugar will do is make her fail math. 

If you didn’t intuitively know that about your character, then yes, I would say you should probably know what your character eats for breakfast. But even if you never thought about writing this breakfast scene in your story, chances are, you’ve already figured it out without needing to articulate it to yourself. 

So much of writing a story involves trusting yourself. And if you’re writing something and hitting a wall, part of trusting yourself includes trusting that you’ll recognize when you need to learn something more about craft in order to tell the story that you’re writing. 

As for the actual question about how to get to know your characters better, there are many exercises you can try. Some of them include character questionnaires, writing letters to your character as if they’re a pen pal, answering personality quizzes as if you were your character, and creating character sketches. I would recommend trying them all out and seeing what works best for you. Most importantly, pay attention to what you find most enjoyable, what feels most intuitive and fits with your writing process.

The way that works best for me is to journal in the voice of my characters. I’ll generally do this within the scope of the story. If my character from the above example has a run-in with her teacher at school one day and gets suspended, I’ll write the scene and if I feel like something is missing, like I haven’t really gotten to the heart of the scene or haven’t figured out whether or how that scene fits into the larger story, I’ll have my character journal about what happened and explore her thoughts and feelings about how the day unfolded and why things went down the way that they did. 

Through my journaling, I might discover that the day started off on a negative note for her because her dad gave her a lecture, yet again, about how frosted flakes are destroying her brain and that’s why her grades aren’t high enough to get into the college she wanted to go to.

I like journaling because of its open-ended nature. I might discover something that’s instrumental to the story — like my character’s relationship with her father — and I’m able to do this through the same story-telling process that I use when I’m writing the story. It doesn’t feel like additional work that I have to do to learn more about my character. Or rather, it doesn’t feel pointless, like something I’m doing just because I need to know what my character eats for breakfast otherwise my characters aren’t strong enough.

Ultimately, find out what works for you and ignore all the other advice you come across when it comes to your writing. I appreciate that this can be hard to do when you’re new to creative writing or just starting to get published. It does take time for all your knowledge about craft to sink in and show up effortlessly in your writing. But if you stick to what you know works for you, you’ll find the process much more enjoyable, and you’ll also hone your intuition. You’ll be able to recognize when you need to learn more about craft, and more importantly, you’ll know when you’ve found the right approach — the right teacher or the right course — that fits with your approach to writing and your process.

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