mimesis – (noun), imitation of the real world in literature, art, etc. Art imitates life.
We want our writing to be mimetic, to draw readers in as though they’re looking through a window — or into a mirror — that shows them a world that feels as real as their own. This is what a reader is looking for when they say they want to relate to a character; they want to feel like that character, and their story, is real to them. The most immersive creative works play out almost like a documentary — not in style, but in experience. You leave the film or the book feeling as though you watched the real life of a real person. When that suspension of disbelief breaks, the immersion shatters; when you’re aware that what you’re watching or reading is fake, it’s harder and harder to keep yourself in the right headspace to enjoy the story. That’s why good writers want to achieve a level of mimesis — you want your art to feel real.
But how to create that level of authenticity? How do we bring our fictional worlds to life?
I offer to you one of the most tired writing clichés that has ever been scrawled across a English classroom’s white board:
Write what you know.
We’ve all heard this advice before, and we’ve all probably bucked up against it. So only people that have met dragons in real life can write about them? we’ve asked. So women can’t write male characters? we’ve groused. So unless I was a soldier in 1938, or a feudal peasant in the Middle Ages, or Albert Einstein himself, I can’t write my historical fiction novel? we’ve shouted into the voidal abyss.
Obviously, you can write about anything you want. Just do your research, make it interesting, and try not to embarrass yourself or harm others with your work. Write what you know tends to be advice given to sixth graders struggling to think of a topic for a homework assignment, and it can be a frustrating bit of fluff for a more experienced writer to hear. But when it comes to making our stories ring true, write what you know is actually great advice to fall back on.
No matter how detached from our contemporary way of life your science fiction, or fantasy, or historical world might be, you can add relatability by texturizing your story with details easily familiar to you and your readers. Keep it simple, is what I’m saying. Write what you know.
Find little details, little moments, that ring true. You can describe a windy day in beautifully crafted prose and your reader might nod along, but if you add that, because of this relentless gale, your character’s hair keeps whipping across their face and flying into their mouth, that’s a personal detail that tons of your readers can relate to. We get that, and instantly your windstorm feels a little more real.
Few of us are embittered royals living in a castle rife with unruly drama, but you can color your palace intrigue with experiences your reader can relate to: being betrayed by a friend; that squirm in your stomach when it occurs to you that someone might be lying to you; the shame of realizing you’ve thoughtlessly hurt someone; the anxiety of trying to argue with someone when your throat is gumming up and feel more and more that you’re about to cry; the sheer annoyance of trying to do something when you’ve got one shoe that keeps slipping off.
Readers might not able to identify with owning their own fire-breathing dragon, but they are familiar with having pets that are hard to train and destroy your house; pets that you love so much, but are forced to give away; pets that comfort you on a horrible day; pets that break your heart when they pass away. A major part of writing, one of the most fun parts of writing, is finding those small, authentic details that help your readers relate to this bigger, stranger, wilder story you’re trying to tell.
Find ways to bring your fantastic, fictional world down to a human level and it’ll be far more easy for your readers to visualize and empathize with it. Find the universal experiences we all go through. Find the human touch. Find those little details that your reader will understand, identify with, and use to immerse themselves in the story.
Write what you know.
That’s all for this week. Happy writing, everyone.
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