In my wip (that’s work-in-progress to non-writers) I need a character to introduce Elle to the spaceship, another to figure out that she’s a stow-away and still another to give her fake papers so she’ll appear to be legitimate. That’s three characters who aren’t essential to the story and all must appear in the first two chapters.

There are two ways to handle such a situation. The first involves creating what some writers call throw-away characters, those people who appear briefly in a story and then disappear, never to be seen again. It’s fun to create such characters and describe them in a sentence or two that implants them so firmly in the readers’ minds that they stay there forever. But too many minor characters can clutter up a story.

So I chose the second way. I simplified and combined. I created one single character who will be semi-important to the story and who does all three jobs. He meets Elle as they board the spaceship, he finds her living hand-to-mouth and he makes fake papers for her. And since he’s also the father of a small girl who helps Ells survive and since he’s also the Mayor of the village she lives near, he’s available to accomplish all sorts of other things in the story that I haven’t yet figured out I’ll need done. And he’s just one character.

A simple story will be remembered long after a complex one has been long forgotten and one character who becomes part of the story will be fuller and more rounded than several throw-away characters, no matter how well they have been described.

The decision as to which way to go is up to the writer. Long stories usually need simplification because they are complex enough without adding to the mix. Shorter stories often benefit from one or two well-defiined throw-away characters.



 A writer I met recently was discussing her college writing classes that resulted in an MFA in creative writing.  The thing that struck me was how strongly (according to her) her instructors stressed that writers should write about what they know.

That comment kind of ended the conversation because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept of such strict limits on my writing. 

I mean, exactly what were those instructors telling her to do?  Write her life story and nothing more?  And, if she was willing to follow their advice, how was she to actually know what she knows?

Do we know only those things we’ve experienced?  Should we limit our stories to those things?  And which experiences qualify and which are too marginal to be put on paper? 

Should young writers eliminate senior citizen characters because they don’t know what it’s like to be elderly? 

Do we know only those things that are real?  Should we never write science fiction, fantasy or paranormal fiction unless they have personally met the aliens, ghosts, werewolves or whatever in their stories?

Or is that the right way to look at the whole question of writing about what you know?  Could it be that that writer misunderstood her instructors?  I certainly hope they never meant for their advice to be taken literally because, if all writers only write about what they have experienced in the real world, then most literature out there today would not exist.  No Frankenstein.  No Dune.  No Lord of the Ring.  No alternative history.  No historical novels.  No science fiction.  No fantasy.  Few romances. 

Yet it is true that you write best about what you know.  So…. what do we really know?

You may never have crossed the void of space but if you feel the sensation of living in a space ship, if you see distant galaxies in your sleep, if you hear the snap of light zapping between stars, then you know space and you can write about it.  If you sense otherworldly beings, whether they exist or not, you know them.  If you understand the unfolding romance between characters that will never, ever exist in real life, then you know them and can write their stories.

Wonderful stories written by someone who understands that true knowledge comes from within the writer and is not limited to either experience or reality.