One of the first pieces of advice every writer receives is to "write what you know." This can be extremely frustrating advice as you sit an ponder what it is you actually know and how you turn that into writing that someone would actually want to read.
The first thing to understand is to not to take this advice too literally. J.K. Rowling was not actually a part of a magical wizarding world. Stephenie Meyer is not a vampire. Suzanne Collins did not survive The Hunger Games. Tolkien did not live in Middle Earth. These authors still wrote what they knew.
They took what they understood about human nature and human behavior and created realistic characters and placed them into situations that could plausibly happen in the worlds they created. Collins took what she understood about the need of some sections of human society to subjugate others to demonstrate their inflated sense of importance thus creating a dystopian society in which something like The Hunger Games could flourish. Basing the games on an extreme version of today's reality television shows added a strong sense of reality to the tale. She then placed characters that most people can identify with into the situation.
Realistic characters come from creating people like us, complex combinations of heroism and flaws, happiness and sadness, and hot mess a good share of the time. We identify with these characters because they aren't perfect. Harry Potter would not have been the sympathetic character he was if he had not lost his parents as a baby and been raised in a Muggle household where he was treated unfairly. Frodo Baggins would not have been a sympathetic character if he hadn't been the reluctant hero facing his fears at every turn. These characteristics exist in all of us, both hero and villain.
Last year my mother read the first draft of my first novel before she passed away. She hugged the draft the her chest as she told me how much she loved the book, especially how realistic the characters were.
To put this in perspective, the book is about a small community in Arkansas where strange and often paranormal things happen almost daily. The characters take all of these things in their stride as though these things were completely normal. The characters are not perfect, some are deeply flawed.
I have never been to Arkansas, but at the time I started the book I was on the phone everyday for my day job talking with people in Arkansas. So I got to know the people. I love every one of my characters. They are funny but I do not make fun of them. The funny arises from being human in human situations.
I based the main character loosely on myself, so that I knew. I based my main character's mother on my mother. The other characters were people that took up residence in my head and won't leave. Most of them are rednecks of whom Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy would be proud.
My mother sure was. She was especially proud of how real it is, even though one of the characters gets abducted by aliens and meets Elvis long after he died.
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