Through the looking glass

So, recently a non-writer friend of mine was kind enough to read the submission draft of my novel BLOOD RED SUN.  After making his way through it, he had a bunch of questions for me.  One of them really threw me for a loop.

Did, I — he wanted to know — base the main character on myself?

My reaction came in two parts.  The first was: Whoa! Heck no.  I was surprised he’d even think that.  After all, the protagonist of BLOOD RED SUN is from a very different time and culture than our own.  As such, she possesses a vastly different world view than I do.  I worked hard to bring this difference out and was worried that perhaps I’d failed in bringing her essential otherness across to the reader.  My second reaction was a sneaking feeling of flattery.  After all, my protagonist a total badass.  Did it seem possible to the reader in question that she was anything like me? [for the record, I am the opposite of a badass].

After these initial reactions passed, though, I began to wonder.  How much of myself, or my subconscious view of myself, ended up slipping into characterizations of my protagonist?  While the situations she faces bear no connection to anything in my life (I can’t remember the last time I faced down the Lords of the Underworld, for instance), her struggle with self-doubt and the determination to overcome it is a familiar one to me.  So is her stubbornness, and her difficulty in relying on others or admitting she needs help (hmmm…did I put all my own bad qualities into this character?).

My friend’s question really got me thinking.  How much of ourselves do we unconsciously invest in the development of our characters?  Is this inevitable or avoidable?  Does it make our writing more authentic (in that we’re writing what we know) or does it serve as a detriment (in that we can end up stuck with a bunch of gag-worthy Mary Sue versions of ourselves)?  I like to think that I’ve done the former – bringing emotions and internal struggles that I’ve grappled with to my fictional character’s development and actions.  I’m self-doubting enough (see!) to worry it’s the latter.

In the end, I have no answers here.   But I’d sure love to hear what you think.  Have you struggled with this issue in your writing?  What are your thoughts on the matter?

5 thoughts on “Through the looking glass

  1. Stephen Buchheit

    1) it’s a semi-standard question. 2) Like Athena she sprang fully armored form your head (so there’s going to be similarities) but it all breaks down after that. Being able to see parts of yourself in the character is sort of like reading horoscopes, part stroking your ego (to get your buy-in) and then vague enough for you to fill in the logic holes to make the connection.

  2. EF Kelley

    On occasion, my characters do sound a bit like myself. That’s typically on the first pass. Second pass, I put my Editor hat on and bump up the characterization a notch.

    Except in the case of the Demon in my latest work. He’s all me. But with more snark. And he gets more women. Like, LOTS more. Beyond that, he’s totally me.

  3. Amy

    I’ve been thinking about this very problem recently. I think most (if not all) of my characters have pieces of myself in them, because it is, after all, me who is attempting to understand them enough to put them on the page. Beyond htat, I’ve been trying to challenge myself to try to find a greater variety of character to feature.

    On a side note, writing characters can be a great way to discover the issues that I myself need to work on, since I am more likely to veer in those directions. 🙂

  4. Juliette Wade

    I remember writing my first female main character and only on the second pass did I realize exactly how much she was like me. It was hurting her ability to behave like the character she needed to be. I still haven’t quite gotten her right even now, but I have a good feeling about the next draft, because I’ve gotten much better at pushing characters away from me into Otherness. It’s a good question to bring up.

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