Write What You (Don’t) Know

That “write what you know” adage is a mixed bag of cats, in my opinion. The technical word for it that they whip out in English classes is verisimilitude — the feeling of truth in fiction. That’s well and dandy, but some people seem to think that means you can’t write about anything that doesn’t happen in real life.

Sorry, what?

I remember reading a picture book with my second grade class full of vocabulary words. It was a retelling of the Cinderella story, but with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! It was the best thing in the world. (It’s called Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale. Talk about a blast from the past, eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge.) It was fantastic, in every sense of the word.

Speaking of, there are entire genres, thousands of stories, devoted to turning “verisimilitude” on its head. Do you think Tolkien ever met an actual, scaly, fire-breathing dragon? He wrote five or six of the darn things. I have never been on an intergalactic spaceship in my life, but darned if I’m going to let that stop me from writing a space opera. I’ve never met a fairy from the Summer Court, but I wrote a book about them. So what if these things aren’t real right now? That’s the thing about words. You can do anything with them. If you want to write a book about cowboy aliens feuding with mermaids, you can do that. If you want to write a book about a cactus’s search for love, you can do that. It’s your brain, dude. Go nuts.

But now that you have your crazy cool world, it has to be relatable. This is what I mean by a mixed bag — there’s got to be some element that the readers can recognize and identify with. I don’t care whether your protagonist has tentacles. Maybe blue spots lighting up on his face is the alien equivalent of a blush, and he can’t stop glowing when he sees the other alien down the hall. Or maybe the protag is a dragon who’s trying to outdo that green-scaled idiot across the mountainside in a contest on whose lair is the most bedecked with jewels.

And not just the characters, the setting, too. Even Mars has crunchy sand underfoot that gets everywhere and annoys the crap out of your characters. Playing in fantastic genres is a lot of fun, but it won’t work if the only cool thing is the genre itself.

Fantastic Species: Elves

When it comes to fantasy creatures, elves and dwarves are pretty much the go-to nonhuman species for populating a world. (Aside from all the cattle-munching dragons, that is.) And as per the Tolkien world that shadows everything we do in the genre, elves are graceful and wise and as old as time, usually archers and amazing dancers; and dwarves are basically humans but with a rustic Viking aesthetic and a penchant for anvils. Elves can never be wrong, but dwarves are usually about as wrong or right as the rest of us plebes.

Which is interesting, because in the original Lord of the Rings books, Gimli the dwarf is a smooth-talking, graceful diplomat; and Legolas the elf is a big cheerful lug with a bow. And in The Silmarillion, the slim volume that’s packed with more murder and mayhem than A Song of Ice and Fire (if less graphically put), elves are just as likely to mess up catastrophically as humans are.

This begs the question: where did that stereotype of Ancient Wise Elves and Surly Dwarves come from? And the answer is: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Cate Blanchett is amazing, but when you know that Galadriel took part in the slaughter at Alqualondë, it’s a little harder to see the Queen of Lothlorien as always right about everything.

(Caveat: I have never played a single Bioware Dragon Age game, so I can’t speak for the elves in those stories. If elves are treated differently there, I’d love to discuss the difference!)

So once we know that the Ancient Wise Elf is a stereotype, what is the literary utility of a character like that? Someone who has lived through every age, who scorns mortals for their brief lives, who is never wrong about anything — what function does a character like that have in a story? If you need an elder to impart advice to your young hero, sure, that makes sense. But it makes even more sense for your elder to be wrong about something. (Cf. Dumbledore and Old Ben Kenobi.) And it might just be me, but if some fantastically beautiful person told me my life was as brief as an insect and they knew the answer to all of my problems … well, that sounds awfully condescending, doesn’t it?

When it comes to know-it-all characters, for me the satisfaction mostly comes in showing that character that they actually don’t know everything. And when it comes to immortal characters, there’s even more satisfaction in showing that they can be surprised by something. So that’s it, really: the role of the stereotype, at least in my view, is to break it.