I like to write secondary world fantasy. Not just because I'm a worldbuilding fiend, but because I like the idea of starting fresh. A secondary world gives me the ability to construct a world that I can relate to. I can relate to every character, every culture and every government because they are all part of me, of my experience.
I like this not because it provides the opportunity to revel in my experience, but because it gives me a starting point to explore ideas. My experience is already my starting point. However much it grows or doesn't, it will always be my default. All humans are shut in their own little world; the individual experience is not (currently) downloadable. It is locked in a person's head and every human must start from their own point.
But, what I can do is widen my experience--both in the world and in my head. I expand my experience in the world by putting myself in different situations and meeting diverse people. So, for me, it only makes sense to do the same in my fiction.
In my writing I set up a situation derived from my own experience, with characters also derived from the same, because I cannot do anything else. As wide as I have tried to make my experience (and thus my characters and situations) they will always begin as my experience.
But here's the best part. They grow!
When I conceived of Beshauna Alayen from Born of This Soil, I did it specifically because she is outside my personal experience. She is not a person who likes change. She will do things the same way every time. She is so attached to the ground beneath her feet that she cannot imagine who she would be without it--and the traditions and history of her people--to inform her identity.
I have no idea what that would be like.
I was always moving around as a kid and I didn't have a very wide family experience to go by, let alone cultural traditions other than the ones you can't avoid just by being a "white girl" in America. Finding my own identity has been more of a struggle because of this.
Beshauna does not have that struggle. She defaults to her cultural position even when I don't. And when I'm not true to her, she tells me. She--a fictional construct--teaches me. Through her, I have a better (not perfect, but better) understanding of what that's like.
I write to explore and to learn. When I'm writing a character who is distinct from myself (for whatever reason), I'm not always going to get it right. I always try my hardest and do my best, but I will make mistakes, and I will learn from them, and do it better the next time. Doing it wrong is often necessary while learning to do it right.
Not everyone writes for these reasons, or sees things this way, but it is my way. And I'm well aware that Beshauna's cultural norms also come from my experience and therefore even that is not truly something outside myself. But, that's the secret, nothing really is. At the most basic level, everything that a human being can express in a given situation, can be expressed by any human being who is put into that situation. What path that expression takes is a matter of individual experience and perspective.
I will never totally understand the experience of even one other person, no matter how alike or different. That doesn't mean I should try, but there will always be a disconnect, because I am not that person. Empathy can help to narrow the gap, as can imagination, but there will always be some distance--even if it's infinitesimal--between me and anyone else. The wider my experience, the narrower the gap. I don't think the barrier of my own experience can ever be completely broken down, or that it should be. I am who I am because of my experience; I don't want to lose my individuality. I want to enrich it with the knowledge of what could be.
And hopefully, out of all of it, I will pull a story that is entertaining and thought provoking. At least, that's my goal.