Pulling Inspiration from Life
Most likely, for every writer, parts of their real life worm their way into their characters, settings, and plotlines, regardless of the novel’s genre and age category. Drawing inspiration from life is powerful because we’ve experienced the feelings and can write from a real, raw perspective. We can provide details that someone else wouldn’t think about or be aware of, which breathe life into the story and draw the reader in. These details also add dimensionality to the characters, whether it’s a certain way of talking, a nervous habit, or a unique view on a topic.
These things can of course also be made up from scratch, but drawing from real life keeps characters consistent and prevents us from going too far or falling into cliché.
Where to Start
If you’re in the brainstorming stages of the novel, think back on some of the most significant parts of your life — both happy and sad memories. The painful ones are usually more powerful, as hard as that is, because they often have enough behind them to drive a novel.
As an example, I’ll be talking a bit about my process writing my debut novel, American Panda. The initial spark of the idea for the book arose when my husband pointed out that my very traditional Taiwanese parents did some pretty hilarious things (think Asian My Big Fat Greek Wedding). I realized that my experience would be relatable to not just other Asians but many child-of-immigrants, and also anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their parents.
Then, when I decided to put my dental license aside to write full-time and they, to say the least, disapproved, American Panda became a book about a second-generation Taiwanese-American whose parents want her to become a doctor despite her germophobia (all while dealing with funny cultural differences). A difficult time in my life grew into this book.
How to Get Inspired
To me, pulling inspiration from life means using real emotions and people to create fully-fledged characters and scenes, filled to the brim. When writers talk about their characters speaking to them, it’s because the characters are so familiar and well-developed that they’re almost real, and one way to get here is by pulling inspiration from experience.
This involves not just pulling details from people you know, but pulling from TV show/movie characters or real people you read about. Inspiration can — and should — come from everywhere. The hope is that these seeds will bud into three-dimensional characters that will start to act on their own and tell you what they’re thinking and feeling, what their actions will be, and where they will steer the story.
When I’m brainstorming a novel, my wheels are constantly turning, and everything I see, hear, and touch could be a moment of inspiration in which my story starts to come together. When I hit writer’s block, I always read other books, watch TV, or meet up with friends, because I never know what random thing will give me the answer I’m looking for. Often, they hit me as I’m falling asleep, hence the pad of paper beside my bed. Sometimes all it takes is being open, letting yourself live while keeping your characters in the back of your mind so that your subconscious can make the necessary connections for you.
Another benefit of doing this is that in the beginning, that blank page is often a huge, looming hurdle to jump over. If you start with people already familiar to you, especially people who are unique and interesting, it’s easier. You’re grasping onto a seed from which everything can grow.
The Line Between Fact and Fiction
Down the road, there will likely be another hurdle: finding the line between fact and fiction.
The first draft of my book was essentially a memoir; I didn’t know how to separate my real life from the narrative. It took three complete rewrites for the characters to blossom from their real-life counterparts into fictional characters.
I felt a lot of pressure writing a diverse book with an underrepresented culture at the center, and I felt like I had no choice but to pull everything from life to make sure it was authentic. But eventually, I realized that the best thing for the book (and perhaps my personal life) was to find the right line between fact and fiction and develop the characters as their own people, not the real-life inspiration.
After going through so many rewrites, I would recommend that others try to find this line before writing (although sometimes the rewrites are necessary to get there). Decide what facts to keep and layer in other backstory, quirks, passions. Combine multiple real people into one fictional character. Keep the most interesting parts and add contradicting characteristics to play up the ones you’ve already chosen. Have fun with it!
Writing my book helped me work through a lot of personal demons. Be forewarned that this path may involve soul-searching, but the enlightened outcome can be worth the suffering. For me, writing from my protagonist’s point of view and having a character who could say all the things I couldn’t helped me see my situation from the outside, analyze it as someone else’s, and cope in a new way.
Eventually, for the sake of the book, I ended up asking my mother questions about her upbringing, mine, and our culture, and it forced us to communicate. The book brought our relationship to a place it had never been before. And of course, all of that also worked its way into the book.
I hope that by sharing my journey, it will help some of you in yours!
- Use your own experiences, especially the ones that were the most emotional, to draw ideas from.
- Keep your book in the back of your mind so that you’ll be pulling ideas from everything you read, watch, and experience.
- Find the line between fact and fiction so your characters become their own people, separate from their real-life counterparts.
- If you write about important moments from your life, be prepared to go through some soul-searching and face some demons head on. This may turn out to be a blessing!