Photo of the bottom half of a woman's face reflected in a shard of mirror.

Write What You Know, But First, Know Who You Are

by Tessa Fisher

A perennial bit of advice for budding young writers is “write what you know.” The hope behind this bromide, I suspect, is two-fold: that by writing about topics that you’re already familiar with, the process of writing becomes less intimidating, and, additionally, adds a greater sense of verisimilitude to the resulting story. That’s the theory, anyway.

However, this is predicated on the assumption that what you know is accurate.

I first started writing “The Summoner’s Apprentice” [on sale now!] back in 2013. I’ve always loved stories that took traditional fantasy tropes and recontextualized them into science fiction settings, and so when the idea struck me of taking the timing of the conjurer’s incantation being when “the stars are right” and turning it into a reference to the orbits of post-human entities in deep space, I knew I had to craft a tale around it.

What I “knew” at the time was that I was ostensibly a man, and so I wrote what I knew, and made the main character a teenage boy named Arjun. Metis, as a character, did not appear; Solomon was the only other character that Arjun interacted with.

I recall submitting this story to a few venues, but it didn’t go anywhere. Looking back at it now, it’s easy to see why: Arjun and Solomon both had exceedingly flat personalities. Their dialogue felt forced and unrealistic, like they were just going through the motions. Arjun’s motivation for seeking Solomon out came across as a teenage boy’s whine that his family didn’t appreciate him enough. Solomon, on the other hand, was motivated by what can only be described as painfully cliché daddy issues. Names, however, still played a major role—knowing someone’s true name, given or otherwise, was a key to their power.

Some things didn’t change. The importance of names not only remained, but gained an added relevance, as asserting our chosen names is often an important part of a trans person’s journey into authenticity.

I wrote a second version, developing Solomon’s motivation into something much more interesting, and diving into the philosophical ethical questions that might arise from being able to copy one’s mind to a machine. What, if any, obligations would that copy have to the original? Should they be considered the same person, or wholly separate entities? Which of them is the “real” one? To give Arjun more room to interact with others, I added Metis, whose presence also raised questions. What rights are these copies entitled to? Is it ethical to punish one for the crimes (real or imagined) of its progenitor?

While this definitely made the story more compelling, something still felt “off” about the characters. I tried putting as much of myself as I could into Arjun, but he remained stubbornly stiff and two-dimensional. He just never seemed real. After a few more rejections, I put the story on the back burner, and moved on to other projects.

About a year later, in the middle of a flight down to visit the family of my then-fiancée-now-wife for the holidays, I had the epiphany that the assumptions I had about my own gender had been wrong—I was a woman. While it took me a few months to fully come to terms with this realization, I eventually started transitioning medically, socially, and legally, to female.

After I transitioned, I went back and looked at “The Summoner’s Apprentice.” It became apparent to me that as dull as the characters were, the bones of the story were still good. Furthermore, it became painfully obvious why Arjun and his interactions with others had never felt authentic. He had been a reflection of my own attempt at emulating masculinity. He seemed like he was going through the motions as a character, because I had been going through motions of performing a male role in life. His two-dimensional portrayal of being a teenage boy was due to my shallow understanding of my own adolescence, which, in retrospect, had largely been spent mildly dissociated from life as a coping mechanism.

I quickly realized that the story would be much improved with a new protagonist, one whose lived experiences I could relate to on a deeper, more visceral level. Thus, Arjun became Kestrel, a teenage trans girl.

Suddenly, characterization became infinitely easier, motivations far more compelling. While Arjun ran away because he felt his family didn’t appreciate him enough, Kestrel did so because her family fundamentally didn’t understand who she really was. Arjun agreed to become Solomon’s apprentice because it seemed convenient at the time; Kestrel specifically sought out the position, wanting to use near-divine abilities of the post-human Powers to complete her transition. And, chillingly, for Solomon, Kestrel became a vessel to project his rage at Metis.

More than that, however, writing Kestrel came to me freely and effortlessly, the complete opposite of the stiff awkwardness I experienced writing Arjun. I was really able to put myself into her, not just the person I thought I was supposed to be. She felt real in a way that Arjun never had.

Some things didn’t change. The importance of names not only remained, but gained an added relevance, as asserting our chosen names is often an important part of a trans person’s journey into authenticity. I imagine that, for Kestrel, repeating her own name eventually becomes almost a mantra, a battle cry of defiance against those who would seek to control her.

Ultimately, I don’t think I would’ve been able to write such a believable protagonist had I not come to terms with my own identity. My experiences of the world, the basis of my fiction, were drawn from pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I had to live authentically before my characters could.

Writing what you know can be a great help to the would-be author. It can make your characters seem alive, make them deeply more relatable. But if you truly want to make your characters true to life, the first thing you must know is yourself.

Tessa Fisher is a PhD candidate and possibly the world’s only openly trans lesbian astrobiologist. When not doing science, she enjoys burlesque dancing, singing in her city’s LGBT women’s chorus, yoga, and writing LGBT-positive science fiction and fantasy. Her work has appeared in Vulture Bones, Fireside Magazine, VOIDJUNK, and Baffling Magazine, as well as the Rosalind’s Siblings and Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters anthologies. She resides in Phoenix, Arizona, along with her wife, and a fairly aloof bearded dragon. You can find her on Twitter @spacermase.

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