What Do You Know About Forty-Year Old Men?

My mother asked me this question when I was giving her a synopsis of the book I am currently working on. It’s actually a question I have been asking myself ever since I sat down and began to plot this thing out instead of letting it circle around my head. I am a twenty-one-year old girl; my main character is a forty-year old man. The question is really, if we break it down to its core: can you convincingly write about something outside of your personal experience?

A lot of the authors I meet are writing very close to home. Many are writing memoirs, or semi-autobiographical works. Women are writing women, men are writing men. Twenty-somethings are writing about other twenty-somethings. If a writer steps outside that bubble, are they suddenly in a danger zone? Is there a certain limit to how far they can go before everything comes tumbling down around their ears?

I do think it is possible to convincingly write a character that is nothing like yourself. After all, how would we ever write villains if it were not true? Most of us do not traipse around killing people, yet the best horror authors can get inside a killer’s head. How would we write about a different gender? Men have proved they can write strong, realistic women; I just finished reading the first novel in Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife series, and there was nothing in the book that made me think “that’s not how a woman would think.” C.S. Friedman’s novel, Black Sun Rising, has a great male protagonist, as well as a wonderful male villain. There are many examples of authors who have transcended many borders to tell a story.

That brings us to the second question: is there a limit to how far a writer can go? Is there a boundary set purely by experience? Where I have actually seen this argument most poignantly was in a conversation between role-players. Now, I have role-played for over half of my life now (pretending to be a Pokemon trainer in my backyard notwithstanding). I am not talking the Dungeons and Dragons sort of playing, but what I’ve always referred to as free-style role-playing: both my friends and I would decide what characters we wanted to play (often our favorite characters from television shows, movies, or books), and, using MSN Messenger or AIM, we would throw them into “scenes.” There are entire forums where you can have your character, whether he be original or from a media source, “write” a post and have conversations and scenes with others. It is a lot like a collaborative writing process.

The argument came up after someone bemoaned the fact that there were not a lot of role-playing characters of color around. Some people said that it was because that forum mainly had characters from television shows and that there weren’t a lot of prominent black character out there. Some said it was because the majority of the role-players were white and frightened of playing a black person, in case they might somehow get them “wrong.” That brought up the questions of: should white players play black characters? A lot of people said yes, but there were those that said no, that white players could never “correctly” write a black person because they’d never experienced life as one.

I would elaborate more on this issue, but to tell the truth I am extremely upset by my mother’s words. As someone who is already afraid of showing my work to others, to be told that I do not have enough skill as a writer to place myself in someone else’s shoes and write a story from their perspective brings up a lot of those feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness I know every writer struggles with from time to time. I’ve already put a lot of love and time into this tale, and I want to tell it; no, I will tell it. But for now I think I need sit back and lick my wounds.

    • Duke Pennell
    • July 26th, 2010

    You’re going to find a lot of people who’ll tell you it’s not good to write outside your personal experience. It’s true, you shouldn’t do it . . . up to a point.

    When you first start writing TO BE PUBLISHED, you need to learn all the basic skills that getting published requires. AFTER you’ve been published, you can branch out to characters/situations outside your experience.

    Learn to walk before trying to run. It’ll make a better walker AND runner out of you.


    • After thinking about this for a while, I’ve come to a realization: I don’t write to be published. Sure, it would be an awesome accomplishment, but I would write stories if I were stuck on a desert island with only toucans for an audience. I’m not writing a novel to make money: I’m going to college for the sake of my future paycheck, not opening up Word. I am writing a novel to accomplish something for myself, and tell a tale I want to be told: if I only am able to tell that tale to close friends and relatives, so be it. For me, getting published will not automatically make me a “good writer” nor more or less able to write about someone with different experiences than my own. The idea that I need to, instead of researching, finding help or letting more experienced folk critique my work, not tell the story I want to tell rather rankles.

      The fact that people, my mother included, will think that I cannot write it before I really begin is a painful fact of life, but at this point I have let too many stories die because of what someone has said before even glancing at my work. It has what kept me from releasing my work except under anonymous names to websites, to be read and commented on only by people who have no idea who I am. Maybe I am taking the hard way around, but I would rather learn how to tell the stories I want to tell in a meaningful, well-written manner than to tell stories I don’t care about because they’re my own direct “experience.”

    • Madison Woods
    • July 27th, 2010

    I think with research, you can write whatever you want. Even if the characters are totally fictional, as many of mine are. In the case of you writing a 40-something year old man, you’ll need to have someone to bounce off of – prefereably a man of that age or older.

    There’s a male friend of mine I ask man-questions to when I’m clueless about how a man would respond in certain situations. He’s been a tremendous resource as I develop the male co-MC in my book.

    I’ve always learned on the fly, but I’m not published and therefore can’t offer hard and fast advice, but there are lots of it out there and you’ll find most of it conflicts with each other. So do what feels right, and get feedback from someone in the shoes of the character you are writing if it’s a real-life depiction.

    • Mine are mainly fictional, though I realize I pull a lot of reference for their personalities from real life people I know. I like the idea of getting a friend to look over my work and work as a sounding board. I’m pretty sure I can muster up a few forty-year old guys, considering my father has more Facebook friends than I do (woe). Though, of course, I need to get more words down on paper for that.

      Thanks for the advice!

  1. writing a forty-year old man is easy. Just write about a fifteen-year old who has gray hair and hates his job…that pretty much catches the spirit

    • Ha! Funnily enough, my 74-year old grandmother said close to the same thing when I was talking to her about it. “Really, they’re just little boys.”

        • Madison Woods
        • July 28th, 2010

        Right. I think the only thing that changes is restraint in responses to life situations (sometimes). The mind of the man still works the same as the boy’s, lol.

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