Can “Write What You Know” Be Taken Too Far?

Is it lazy for a writer to make the protagonist of their story a writer?

That is an interesting debate that came up a while back on a writers’ forum I belong to, and I devoured the differing viewpoints while internally disagreeing with most of them. Admittedly, I have a bias.

The protagonist of my current novel-in-progress is an aspiring writer/amateur sleuth (cozy mysteries FTW!). I believe there is an audience for this type of story; in fact, I strongly believe that as long as the character has depth and is relatable without being too perfect, it doesn’t matter one iota what their occupation is.

If you are a writer yourself, at some point you will have come across the advice: “Write what you know.” When we’re fledgling writers we tend to take that advice far too literally. The characters in our stories become poorly disguised fantasy versions of ourselves. I read an acquaintance’s self-published debut novel last year and could identify them in the protagonist instantly. It was an enjoyable enough story, but it felt like a romantic fantasy memoir and left me feeling rather like I had read their diary.

There is nothing so cringe-worthy as a story about the idealized version of the author themselves. Isn’t it true that we all have a slightly skewed view of our own traits and motivations? Our own personality is far too close to home to ever write about candidly, mercilessly, intuitively. We tend to polish ourselves up, put on a façade in one way or another, hiding our blemishes and flaws. It’s only when we set our ego aside that we can write in a way that other people will actually want to read.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s why we’re all in this? To write something that someone, somewhere will actually want to read. If you don’t write a protagonist that your readers will actually care about, be curious about, want to follow on their adventures, it won’t matter if you’re writing about an author or a bull-rider or a three-legged prostitute from the planet Q’Blahrg who sings Russian opera on the weekends and poisoned her entire family just for kicks.

If you’re going to make your main character an author, create a character that will hold your readers’ attention even if your readers aren’t writers. Writing what you know doesn’t mean making your characters do what you do. It means tapping into your insight, your feelings, the way your life experiences have shaped you, your eccentricities and how they combine to form the stories only you can tell, in a way only you can tell them. That is what makes your story engaging, what makes your reader stop in their tracks and say, “I didn’t know anyone else felt this way.”

Avoid writing characters that are too much like yourself. Avoid writing characters that are so niche and one-dimensional that only a writer will find anything in them to relate to. Avoid writing characters that are so perfect they have no room to grow and change. But don’t be scared to write what you want to write—there is an audience for you!

I’m going to call out just two books that I read recently that had writer protagonists:

John Grisham’s Camino Island, while certainly not his best novel, is a quick, immersive, entertaining read. He masterfully combines a cozy world of dysfunctional authors and old-fashioned bookstores with a tasty, twisty plot about some stolen priceless manuscripts. Admittedly, the writer protagonist is not the best part of this book; Grisham’s multilayered cat and mouse plot and extremely likeable “baddie” far outshine Mercer and her angst about what to write. It’s not overly deep or complex, but it’s an enjoyable read.

“I’ve never understood people who grind through a book they don’t really like, determined to finish it for some unknown reason.”

John Grisham, Camino Island

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz, starring himself as himself, could be considered a little self-indulgent, but is redeemed by his dry wit and the way he interweaves fact and fiction until you’re no longer sure how much you can believe. The mystery itself is well-plotted, with enough red herrings thrown in that the twist is far from predictable. The book is meta in a good way, pulling you into the story so that you’re experiencing events with the protag who is writing the book that you’re presumably reading. In this case, Horowitz took “Write what you know” very literally, making himself the main character, and pulled it off. He’s a talented guy.

“But in just a couple of weeks, everything had changed. I had allowed myself to become a silent partner, a minor character in my own book! Worse than that, I had somehow persuaded myself that I couldn’t work out a single clue without asking him what was going on. Surely I was cleverer than that.”

Anthony Horowitz, The Word Is Murder

To sum up, if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you’ll know already that I’m not a fan of hard and fast rules. If you want to write about a fantasy version of yourself and you can do it in an engaging way, you do you! If you want to create a main character who is a writer that solves murders and juggles flaming knives in their spare time, bring it on! What matters is good writing, an engaging plot, and interesting, well-developed characters—how you fill in the blanks in that formula is up to you.

Is it lazy to make your protagonist a writer? You won’t find any better an answer than this:

“It’s not my job to populate my books with particular types of characters that I imagine other people might find relatable. It’s my job to write about whatever comes into my head, to the best of my ability. If as a reader you want to exercise control over the kinds of things that are depicted in novels, try writing one. That’s what I did and it worked for me. If, on the other hand, you just don’t want to read novels about writers, or women, or Irish people, whatever, that’s OK. Don’t read my novels. I won’t mind.”

Sally Rooney, interviewed in The Guardian

Published by Aly Writes

I bake. I write. What goes better together than a good story and a delicious fresh-baked pastry? Nothing. And I can give you both. Grab a hot cuppa and join me.

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