For university I wrote an essay about using life experiences and memories to improve fantasy stories. I learned a lot researching and writing my assignment, even if I think I went way off topic, so I’ve briefly summarised my essay below.
3 Ways to Use Life Experiences to Improve Writing:
Use Your Emotional Experiences:
Readers use story details and plot, alongside their own knowledge and experiences, to imagine the story they’re reading in their minds. The stronger our imagery and the more familiar character experiences are to our own, the better the imagined world, engagement with the story, and empathy for characters.
Evoking empathy is especially important in fantasy, as the worlds are often vastly different to our own. Ed and Al’s grief and determination in Fullmetal Alchemist, a dark fantasy, is realistic, because if there was a chance to bring a dead parent back to life, most people would try it. (The anime broke my heart in so many places and will always be my favourite).
We can use our emotional experiences to enhance stories. For my creative assignment I wrote about an anxious mage in a medieval fantasy world. The story was mostly fiction, but basing my character’s emotions on my experiences of anxiety made my character more realistic, as did using imagery like ‘wretched sobs shook my shoulders.‘ I also gave my character a family heirloom, which made him easier to relate to: Items readers recognise prompt them to relive emotions they associate with their own trinkets, leaving a stronger emotional impact.
Think about how various emotions, sadness, joy, etc, make you feel. Write a list of imagery and metaphors you associate with those emotions to use in a story. You may not be a mage or a sword-fighter, but you can focus on the emotions your character would feel: The exhilaration of a perfectly cast spell, or the focus it takes to cross blades with an enemy.
Create Characters Based on Your Personality:
Cheryl Moskowitz developed a technique called ‘Self as Source,’ and claims characters created using parts of our personality are more believable. I chose two conflicting aspects of myself, calm and nervous, and listed metaphors and imagery about each state of mind, considering all five senses.
I also outlined my character’s looks, likes, dislikes, imagined their typical day, named them, and chose a setting, Glastonbury Tor, where they could meet. The Tor is a beautiful location, but the strong winds add a hint of panic: The perfect place for my calm and nervous character to meet.
I used my mannerisms, memories, and Ulric Neisser’s five ways we know ourselves to enhance my characters:
Ecological Self: Consider how your character moves and what objects they focus on. My nervous character is cautious and focuses on his mother’s amulet.
Interpersonal Self: Describe how your character interacts with others. My nervous character makes limited eye contact and twists his hands together.
Narrative Self: Consider your character’s memories and hopes for the future. My character remembers his mother’s death and hopes to find someone who understands him.
Private Self: Consider your character’s thought patterns/inner perception. My character misses his mother, wishes his father accepted him, and believes he’s not good enough.
Conceptual Self: Consider what social/cultural concepts your character has. My character is a son, in a farming village, but also a mage, intelligent and different from other villagers.
I built complex characters that reflected my experiences and emotions, but I made sure they were different from me to avoid creating ‘Mary Sue’ characters (authorial inserts identical to the author). Use your emotions and experiences to create believable characters, but make sure you separate your characters from yourself enough!
Use Aspects of Reality and Places You’ve Visited in Fantasy Stories:
Readers are more likely to relate to stories if they can link them to their own world and lives, so we should aim to include some realistic, recognisable, elements in fantasy. My favourite example is Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon: His mannerisms are based on a cat (chasing light, tilting his head) and this helps viewers relate to him even though he’s a dragon.
Real places, especially historical locations, are great to inspire fantasy settings. In my creative piece I used Glastonbury Tor to inspire my setting, a key site from Arthurian Legend that most fans will be familiar with. I had to embellish details, as the stone structure at the top wasn’t there in the time period my story is set in, but it’s fantasy so changing details is okay!
‘Magnificent sunlight streamed through the archway to the east, like a doorway to another world of emerald slopes and whistling winds.’
Using a place I’d visited added more detail to my story. Describing photos could work too, but don’t forget about smells, sounds, etc. Think about how to use realistic elements in fantasy stories. Base fantasy creatures on similar real animals. Use familiar locations as basis for your setting. Watch the birds fly, take notes on scenery, and use those details to connect with readers.
I think this scratches the surface of what people really mean when they say write what you know: If we only wrote about things we’ve experienced our writing would be pretty dull, but we can use our experiences and emotions to enhance fantasy stories.
Thanks for Reading!
I was sceptical of the life writing module in my MA. I didn’t think I’d gain anything from it as a fantasy writer, but my essay was more useful than I expected and it’s given me lots to think about for future stories. I’ll revisit/expand on this topic in future: My essay was three times the length of this post!
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Do you use your emotions or life experiences in your writing? Base your characters on yourself or others? Have the places you’ve visited inspired story locations? Chat in the Comments!
This post is part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. The hop runs from January to October, sharing resources and tips for writers. Check out other hop posts here: