How to Use Life Experience to Write Better

by Guest Blogger | 38 comments

Today's guest post is by Reagan Colbert. Reagan is a Christian Fiction writer who also has a passion for poetry and songwriting. She lives for powerful words, proper grammar, and anything inspirational. She has a blog, She is currently working on her first novel, Things Unseen.

Readers want something that's real. They want to live in your novel. They want to become your characters, and feel every joy and heartache right along with them. They want to see, smell, hear, feel, taste. Our struggle as the writer is to deliver to them what they want. Our careers and our very lives depend on how the readers feel. No pressure, right?

write better

So how can you do it? What's a sure-fire way for your reader to fall in love with your characters? How can you write a story that is real, and at the same time one that is interesting?

Put yourself in the story

You need to be your characters. You need to live inside your book before anyone else can. What's the easiest way to do that? Write about yourself.

Every writer is different, and every story is unique. But no matter what your novel is about, there are three ways you can put yourself into it:

1. Write your life story 

Readers love it when they read, “Based on a true story.” Did this really happen? If the reader can feel they are connected to you as the writer, they'll love it even more. It adds a whole new dimension to your story.

2. Mix fact with fiction

Let pieces of your life interweave themselves into your novel, along with completely made-up parts. It's a more flexible option than writing your life story. You can edit out the parts you don't like, and add plot twists you think would make it better. It keeps that realistic feeling, but you can control the direction.

3. Make yourself the star

Turn your protagonist into yourself. You can have a lot of fun with this one. Give them your strengths and your faults. How would you react if you were in their situation? Make them do the same.

Even if you're writing something you would never be able to experience, if the protagonist turns into you, you'll find them making real decisions and having real reactions. You're not perfect. Neither are your characters.

Write it from experience

It's one thing to create a story. But if you're using your life, your experiences, and your personality, then you have all the material before you even start. So why wouldn't you use it? You're holding your life in your hands, and you can do anything you want to it.

When I started my novel, I struggled with making it sound alive. My protagonist was a twenty-two year old paraplegic, and the setting was 2,000 miles away from where I lived. It sounded horribly unrealistic until I began to put myself into it.

Even if I couldn't put myself into her life, I could turn her into me. I made her feel what I would feel, say what I would say. I gave her my quirks and idiosyncrasies. Slowly, she became a real person and it became a real story.

They should sound as real as possible. Nobody wants to read about someone who is perfect. If the reader can understand the protagonist, they can get lost in their world.

It's what they want. It's what sells. It's what we must write.

Do you have any tricks to help put yourself into a story? Let us know in the comments.


For fifteen minutes, write a story using one of the three methods above.
Use your own experiences to make a great story and don't forget to share your practice in the comments

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  1. Amanda J Evans

    Whilst I enjoyed your post and agreed with most of what you have said, I find that a lot of this doesn’t work for the way I write. I write as if watching a movie screen in my mind. My characters talk to me, tell me there story and I feel as if I just transcribe it. I love writing this way, discovering new lands, bringing in magic and mystery, and I never know what is going to happen until I sit down and start writing. Whilst this won’t work for everyone, and lots of people prefer to have a plot and guidelines to follow, I find that for me personally, writing the way I do works best. I have tried to plot and plan and have spent days creating character profiles only to find that once I started writing, the characters in my head had different views. I do agree with what you have said about ensuring that readers feel the emotion and can relate and become the characters, and I firmly believe that this is the key to a great book. There is nothing better than picking up a book and leaving reality behind for a couple of hours while you become the hero of the story you are reading.

    • Reagan Colbert

      Thanks, Amanda. It might surprise you, but that’s exactly how I write as well: like it’s a movie screen. I am in no way a plotter, and the techniques above are the ones I use once the characters have told me who they are 🙂 It’s once I’ve gotten to know them that I can turn myself into them, and writing becomes easier.
      I love the way you described it: how you ‘become the hero of the story you’re reading’, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

    • Vincent

      Thanks, good point.

    • Amanda J Evans

      Thanks Reagan, the only time I use technique and plotting is when I need research for a place or location if it is required in my story. I have been known to look at different descriptions for eye colour, the way hair falls etc, but like yourself, this is after my characters have revealed their true identity to me.

    • Madani

      Hi, Amanda
      Although I don’t master the English language ( I write in French) I understand quite well what you are saying. I don’t like planning too and didn’t do any plans for my novels (I’ve written seven) for the simple reason that I used my life experience. Without setting a plan I had all the novel in front of my eyes. Thus I started to write but now, after having dragged out all what was hidden deep in my inner life I reached another step. I do no long use my life and let me tell you the last fiction I wrote popped in my mind, for the beginning to the end. Excuse me if I am too presemptuous, it is because I do no master English. I said the story popped in my mind, if I may, when decided not to use my own life but the life of the others, others who have to do with one another to construct a drama.

    • Lauren Timmins

      Vous parlez l’anglais tres bien!

    • Madani

      Merci beaucoup. En participant à ce forum, c’est une façon, à moi, de ne pas perdre ce peu de votre langue que j’ai appris avec beaucoup de difficulté. Il parait que l’Anglais est une des langues les plus difficiles au monde parce que c’est une langue d’intonation.

    • Amanda J Evans

      So glad my comment resonated with you Madani and it is nice to see that a lot of other people allow their characters to tell the story too. While I don’t disagree with planning, sometimes there is some planning and research involved especially with locations, I love to allow stories to unfold and see what is going to happen next.

    • Madani

      If I may say
      When I decided
      Others who have nothing to do with one another

    • Aspholessaria

      I agree with you, Amanda. My characters take over too. I always have an idea of where they are going, but so often they surprise me and take me somewhere else. In my first novel I had one character whom I thought was a boy, but turned out to be a girl in disguise. Later it turned out she was half-sister to another character. I had no idea of these things at the start.

    • Amanda J Evans

      This happened to me with the young adult novel I am working on. I had planned on the main character being a girl, but it has turned out to be a boy, and the father or the boy whom I thought would have a very insignificant role has become a major character. I do love when this happens though because I know that my novel is real and the characters will always tell the story better.

    • sherpeace

      I totally get what you’re saying, Amanda. I do something similar and although a lot of my story IS based on my life, I would never write that. I might mention to an audience that certain scenes were difficult because they are so close to my heart though. I do think all the advice works no matter how much the story is yours or that of fictional characters that have become real to us, the author, and hopefully, to the reader too.
      Sherrie Miranda’s husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

    • Amanda J Evans

      Thanks for your reply to my comment. I often use life experiences in my stories too but this tends to be when I am writing non-fiction. I have noticed that some of my personal feelings or struggles can come out in characters but that is more in the way they portray the struggle or feeling. Death and grief is something that relates to this and when writing about grief, it is an area that I can fully delve into and know exactly how my character is feeling.

    • LaCresha Lawson

      It is so wonderful how writers have their own “style” of writing.

  2. Vincent

    Somebody told me years ago that I write like I talk. I hope not, but the point was that they found it interesting. I use my experiences in my writing.

    • Reagan Colbert

      That’s great, Vincent. Even if you don’t view yourself as perfect, characters are supposed to be flawed. It makes them real, like we are. If you write like you talk, then your characters’ dialogue will be believable. It’s a great technique 🙂

    • Vincent


    • sherpeace

      Writing like you talk is not a bad thing. Probably a good thing: that way when your readers meet you, they aren’t disappointed. 😉 <3
      Sherrie Miranda
      Author of "Secrets & Lies in El Salvador"

  3. Vincent

    No grammar check, raw – True story, names changed – you’ll have to read the ending in a future book. 🙂

    Based on a true story

    It was a dark night and we were steaming due north. The
    watches had just changed. I was on Security Patrol. I made my rounds and
    reported in the Bridge. “All Secure Sir”. All secure Aye, Boatswain make the log entry.
    I stop by the Boatswain and we chat for a few minutes and steaming this far
    north above the Arctic Circle. He tells me we will be able to see the Northern
    Lights tonight . Awesome, I head down the ladder so as not to open the bridge
    door and freeze everyone out. It is very cold, but the air doesn’t feel it when
    you are outside on deck. I make another round fore to aft, top to bottom. Along
    the way I run into a buddy of mine Pintle
    and he tells me I should go up and tell Domingo who is on the forward
    watch that there is an iceberg approaching. I ask him how he knows and he tells
    me to come out on deck with him. There he shows me a small white bump on the horizon.
    I look at it and it is glowing, it is the moon rising I say. He tells me that
    Domingo won’t know that. “You Dog!” What if he reports it and they wake the
    Captain? Rodney is in CIC and I already told him about it. “Domingo won’t
    believe me, but he will if you tell him.” So you want me to ruin my creditability with
    Domingo so you can pull his leg.” “Hell
    Yeah!” “Okay, I am in.” “Give me 10 minutes and I will go up on the flying
    bridge.” I finish making my rounds and
    go up to the bridge to report in. When I depart I use the O2 door and climb the
    ladders up to the Flying Bridge on the 04 deck. There Domingo stands with his
    collar up and his watch cap pulled down tight. He gets seriously seasick and
    has his ever present barf bucket at the ready tied off to the railing. “Hey,
    hey Domingo, what’s up?” “Just this darn watch Mack. This light chop is killing
    me.” Domingo stops long enough to use his bucket. He returns in a minute, I don’t
    say anything as it is just the way it is. “It is a pretty night, it is cold but
    it don’t feel cold does it Mack?” “Your
    right about that, kind of weird.” “Yeah.”
    “ Hey, what the fuck is that! See it on the horizon at three four zero.”
    Domingo snaps his head around and looks out over the sea. “That’s the moon
    coming up, stupid.” “You sure about that?” “Yeah, see how bright it is.” “I do, but it is awfully low in the water to
    be the moon and it isn’t rising off the horizon.” Domingo looks again and he is
    looking at me doubtfully. Domingo looks and sounds like he has been at sea his
    entire life, but in fact he is just newbie like the rest of us. “I think you
    better call that in as an Iceberg just in case. I mean, remember the Titanic.” “Your full of shit, that’s the moon.” The
    doubt was cast, his voice wasn’t as confident as before.

    15 minutes are up.

    • Reagan Colbert

      Wow, this is very intriguing… Truth is better than fiction sometimes!

    • Vincent

      Thanks – I have found that life affords us so many instances of you couldn’t make that up is so true.

  4. Carrie Lynn Lewis

    A great post and one the resonates with me. A few weeks ago something happened to my current lead character that revealed something about myself to me. It’s not an exact fit with any of the methods you describe, but it has helped me get a better idea of what my character is going through and how he reacts by putting myself in the same situations and letting my reactions color his.

    Thanks for a great post and confirmation of that observation!

    • Reagan Colbert

      So glad you enjoyed the post! It’s really amazing to see how our stories change us and make us realize different things about ourselves. I think that’s why we’re called to it. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. Annie

    Based on a true story:

    Eyes downcast, she wove her way through the crowd, quickening her pace in hopes of being on time to class. She had never been tardy to class and didn’t want this to be the first time. Even though she knew for a fact that her journalism teacher, who also happened to be her golf coach, would not care at he. He was cool with pretty much anything and she, though he would never say it out loud, was one of his favorite students. This was the first journalism class she had ever taken and the atmosphere of the class satisfied her, though the interviewing portion gave her extreme anxiety.

    She walked through the computer lab and through the doorway to the lecture hall. Taking a seat in the front row, she sat as close to the teacher and as far away from obnoxious freshman boys as possible. She reached into her backpack and pulled out her lemon yellow folder and a recycled pencil case decorated with vintage bicycles. When her teacher swaggered into the room, she looked up and was greeted with yet another peculiar face that he made. With a laugh, she selected a pencil from her bag and began writing while she waited for school announcements to end and class to begin. Writing was the most important thing in her life, so journalism was just another way for her to express herself, even if it was through factual paragraphs and quotations. Wiping the flyaway wisps of hair from her forehead, she sighed and thought about what her next profile assignment would entail. A boatload of interviews, lots of observations and spending time with people she had never met, and a tiny bit of writing. But it was all worth it. That little bit of writing was enough and she smiled every time she thought of the spot she had promised to her on the school newspaper staff next year.

    • Reagan Colbert

      Wow, this is really great! The details make it so real…. I loved it. 🙂

  6. Victoria

    I do agree that getting to know your character is fundamental in portraying them realistically, and I did like your thoughts on mixing in events and things that have actually happened to you into the fictional narrative. However, I think one ought to exercise caution when “turning themselves into the character” or you’ll essentially end up with all very similar characters (if you write multiple books), or, worst-case scenario, a Mary-Sue/Marty-Stew. People tend to bring their best qualities to light, or portray a version of themselves that they like, which can lean very easily to unrealistic characters. I’m not saying it doesn’t work–it does–just that I believe you should be extra careful if you’re turning yourself into a character.
    I find that for me, it’s easiest to just get to know the character inside and out, like a really, really good friend. Then tell their story. I sometimes use questionnaires, but more often than not I write up mini bios of them, adding in the details I discover about them that happen to be relevant. I also use the Myer’s-Brigg’s typing system to figure out what their personality type is. That helps keep the character true to themselves and also provides variety while still staying consistent.
    Thank you for your post, it was well written. 🙂 God bless.

    • Reagan Colbert

      Thanks, Victoria 🙂 Those are great ideas for character development. In my book, I’ve taken the approach of modeling the protagonist after me, but pretty much every other character has some small resemblance of my feelings as well, mixed in with other personality traits that are nothing like me (for example, the atheist in the book is really nothing like me)
      You raised some really good points here, ones I’ll definitely think about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! God bless 🙂

    • Victoria

      I see; that sounds intriguing. 🙂 I love writing about all different kind of people and all different ages, so I never really thought I had much in common with most of them, but I guess if you think about it, since we are the writer and spend so much time with our characters, there’s likely a bit of the author in every character if one looks hard enough. 😉 God bless!

  7. EndlessExposition

    Like other commenters have said, in my stories my characters’ voices inevitably take over. I find it’s easiest to write about my own experiences in poetry. Here’s one that I did today. The prompt was to write about my greatest fear. As always, reviews are much appreciated!
    The slip slide of brittle bones beneath
    My old woman’s skin no longer produces sparks
    My knuckles are not new
    The scars are fading out from my mountain ranges of crinkled flesh
    The steps that once traversed them no longer echo
    At journey’s end the map begins to dim
    There are no hidden valleys left for my hair to dangle into
    And sweep clean with my dreams
    Lay me down at the last pit-stop, I’m heading out
    No song no dance, just an old woman and an old Ford pickup
    The rain makes mud of the dust around my mouth
    I used to be beautiful
    My silver tongue bled into my teeth
    They ground out the last of my softness long ago
    So I wait alone as the clouds thicken
    I cannot find shapes in them anymore
    Just wet wet water putting out my everything
    A girl I loved told me once that I had stars in my eyes
    I’m glad she is not here to see them die
    In a whimper of a supernova

    • Reagan Colbert

      This is very intriguing. The metaphors you use really made it more personal, and you can tell that it’s your own feelings here. Although I can’t claim to be an expert in this kind of poetry, I think it’s very good 🙂

    • Amanda J Evans

      This is beautiful and so vivid. The imagery you have used is very clever and I can feel the sadness and emotion. I love poetry and also find it one of the easiest things to write. It comes so naturally and effortlessly, like words just floating onto the page. I would love to read more of your work.

    • Sana Damani

      This is truly beautiful.

  8. LaCresha Lawson

    I will definitely be taking your advice as I become a more developed writer. Thanks so much!

    • Reagan Colbert

      That means a lot, as I’m not exactly an expert myself. I’m very glad it helped you, LaCresha!

    • LaCresha Lawson

      Well, it helped a lot. I am starting off my writing with children’s books. And, this will help with the future.

    • Reagan Colbert

      So glad to hear that! I wish you the best with your writing!

    • LaCresha Lawson

      Thank you!

  9. Runwright

    Great suggestion. I used this with the kids in my writing group. They all have magic tricks or food catching tricks etc. that they perform with their friends so they added some of those details to their stories.
    Thanks for sharing this idea



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