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cmi0616
05-29-2014, 10:52 PM
Lots of people don't like Keith Gessen, and that's fine, but I was watching this interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCxYEJC5PoM) with him on Youtube (skip to about 1:00 if you're interested), in which he talks about familiarity.

He says that one of the biggest criticisms of his book was that the characters felt too familiar--"we all know guys like this, so why do we need to read about them?" I think this is worth discussing. Gessen goes onto say that this is not a "valid literary criticism," although I'm not sold (of course, I'm not entirely ready to disagree with him either).

"Write what you know" has arguably become cliché, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's bad advice. If writing is a way of articulating one's subjective experience, then it seems to me that one ought to only write what one knows. But if writing is a way of trying to understand the experience of others, or "the other," then one might not want to "write what you know."

What are your thoughts on this, AW?

Samsonet
05-29-2014, 11:11 PM
Personally, I don't mind reading about familiar. Girls like me who get to go on adventures? Heck yeah!

But then there are other kinds of "familiar": boys angsting that the girl they like won't talk to them, old people ranting about kids these days, girls being catty about their classmates... technically that should be the "other" for me, since I've never experienced any of those firsthand, and yet... I see them all the time, so they've become the "normal" for me. And I don't want to read about that. If that makes sense.

LOTLOF
05-30-2014, 12:40 AM
I've noticed that readers tend to talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to this subject. Many of them complain about about the lack of originality, but write a romance that doesn't end happily or a fantasy story where the hero loses. Many of them will be up in arms because they feel the author didn't meet his promises.

I think what most readers want is a story with familiar elements and character archetypes, but which has interesting details that read as new. I mean how many stories have been written about the humble farmboy destined to be the Chosen One, the wide eyed innocent who finds true love, the hard bitten cop or detective, the wise and kindly mentor who gets killed? All of these characters are familiar to readers everywhere, and I don't think they are in any danger of disappearing.

Where you can be original is in the details. Harry Potter is a classic hero on a classic hero's journey, but he still came off as original. It can be done, just work on making the setting and characters truly yours.

Jamesaritchie
05-30-2014, 01:01 AM
"Write what you know" has arguably become cliché, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's bad advice. If writing is a way of articulating one's subjective experience, then it seems to me that one ought to only write what one knows. But if writing is a way of trying to understand the experience of others, or "the other," then one might not want to "write what you know."

What are your thoughts on this, AW?

There is no better advice in the entire writing world than "write what you know", if the writer actually understands what it means. Though the other side of this coin is "Write who you are." The two are very closely related, but not exactly the same.

If you do not write what you know, and write who you are, I can pretty much guarantee you will never, ever be published in any sort of meaningful way.

Two things, a little bit contradictory. 1. Those making such criticisms of his books are probably total, complete fools. They should be reading comic books about superheroes.

2. If, however, the criticisms really are valid, then Keith Gessen is not accurately writing what he knows because no two people are exactly alike, so we can't "all know people just like these". It means Gessen did not make these characters true individuals, which we all are. If we know people just like them, they are not real people.

Bolero
05-30-2014, 01:27 AM
I think what most readers want is a story with familiar elements and character archetypes, but which has interesting details that read as new. I mean how many stories have been written about the humble farmboy destined to be the Chosen One, the wide eyed innocent who finds true love, the hard bitten cop or detective, the wise and kindly mentor who gets killed? All of these characters are familiar to readers everywhere, and I don't think they are in any danger of disappearing.

Where you can be original is in the details. Harry Potter is a classic hero on a classic hero's journey, but he still came off as original. It can be done, just work on making the setting and characters truly yours.

Or as it is sometimes summarised - "more of the same, but different" :)

Kylabelle
05-30-2014, 02:16 AM
Here's what I like to read, and sometimes dare to aspire to write: characters whom I find easily familiar at first, whom I might enjoy meeting and making friends with, and whose unique, unfamiliar depths are revealed by the story in such a way that I forget how far down the rabbit hole I've followed them... until I look up and remember I won't ever meet them in real life after all, but nevertheless I've learned from them, or maybe seen something in a new way, and enjoyed the experience.

Roxxsmom
05-30-2014, 04:04 AM
I think writing has to find an intersection between the familiar and unfamiliar. Even fantasy and SF worlds usually contain more things that are relatable and familiar to readers than not. We need a bit of predictability in stories and characters in order to relate to them.

But I suspect that people really do differ in their tastes here. I don't mind stories where characters remind me of people I've really known, even myself. Of course, if the protagonist reminds me of someone I loathe, and the writer didn't do a good enough job of making something about him or her interesting, then that story might not be for me.

I don't know about grounds for literary criticism. There seem to be two kinds of critic, really. One is just the ordinary reader who is describing his or her own personal experience with and reaction to the book and rating it on some scale (usually 1-5) on a site like goodreads. These aren't necessarily intended to tell every reader whether the story is worth their while, more to say, "If you like the same things I like or worry about the same things I do, then you might also react in this way."

Then there are the professional critics. They're supposed to be very broad in their tastes and to be able to step outside their own likes and dislikes and not only discuss whether they personally enjoyed the work, but whether or not it has literary merit in a larger sense (and also, perhaps, to take a stab at who might like or dislike it in particular).

imo, very few professional literary critics seem to do this. But whether a writer can say that a particular angle taken by a critic is legitimate or not? I don't know.

In the end, most readers like what they like, and most people seem to like to spend time not only what they personally liked and disliked, but they enjoy telling other people why they should or shouldn't like something and why they're wrong if they don't or do.

RightHoJeeves
05-30-2014, 04:24 AM
It always seemed to that familiar characters but into unfamiliar situations was how it works. That way you can relate to the person (or emphasize, at least), and so you wonder how you would cope in the same situation.

blacbird
05-30-2014, 05:01 AM
I write to find out what I know.

caw

NeuroFizz
05-30-2014, 04:07 PM
Writers who have a solid grip on characterization are frequently able to use the foundation of "write what you know" and extrapolate into the wilds of uniqueness.

cruellae
05-31-2014, 08:28 PM
Writers who have a solid grip on characterization are frequently able to use the foundation of "write what you know" and extrapolate into the wilds of uniqueness.

I think that's a good point. People are people, when you get right down to it. We love, we hate, we get hungry, we dream. Those things are pretty universal, and if you know them, you can go from there and find a unique character.

blacbird
06-01-2014, 12:14 AM
"Write what you know" should never be taken to mean "only write autobiographical stuff." I've always thought it needed to be appended and extended to say "write what you know about people and how they work," or something similar to that. People, or non-human semblances of people, will always have passions, vices, moments of irrationality, loves, hates, cravings, and will behave accordingly. One of the chief problems with "Mary Sue" kinds of stories is that such a character really doesn't reflect how actual real live people behave, and nobody wants to read about boring perfection.

caw

Chekurtab
06-02-2014, 06:56 AM
To me the conversation is all about the cliches. The character may look familiar because he/she is a cliche. There is already a book or a movie about the character under the similar circumstances. For example, a romantic comedy about a career woman and her misogynistic superior. IMO It will take a real writer to put a new spin on these characters to avoid the inevitable familiarity complex.