The Writers’ Interrogation List: Are Your Characters You?

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. I refer to this phenomenon as The Writers’ Interrogation List. I’ve blogged about this topic previously here and here and here.

One question that authors are often asked is ‘Are your characters you?’ or to word that question differently, ‘How much of you goes into your characters?’

Most authors would scoff at such a question and find the idea of an author surrogate (a fictional character based on themselves) insulting to both their imagination and the craft of writing. Author surrogates are a writing technique typically associated with hobbyist writers. In other words, they are seen as bad writing. The fan fiction community has even given these characters a nickname, Mary Sue.

A few authors – very few – openly admit to using author surrogates. Some famous examples are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (though Vonnegut’s literal appearance in the novel is more meta than surrogate, but the narrative itself is heavily based on the author’s experiences during the bombings in Dresden), and Robert A. Heinlein is Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. Of course, these are examples of author surrogates done well. They are the exception to the rule.

Typically, author surrogates are a big fat literary no-no. Sometimes, the narrator of a story is flagged as an author surrogate due to the heavy-handed social, political or philosophical commentary. I’ll return to this idea later, but first I want to discuss the idea of an author basing their fictional characters on themselves.

If an author intentionally buries aspects of their personality or experiences into a character, then that’s their decision (and they may have very good reasons for doing so). If a reader is intentionally picking a character apart in order to find signs of the author, that’s not so good.

As artists, the line between us and our work becomes very blurry very quickly.

On one hand, a book can be very telling as the author may embed beliefs, values, opinions, or real-life experiences into their work, but writing is a strategic exercise. Sometimes characters think or do things that are the opposite to the author, but they do these things because they make sense for the character and because the plot must progress. However, some may argue that all characters are a reflection of the author. After all, they are the ones who created them.

Recently, I completed the final round of self-edits on a mystery novel, and in writing this blog post, I naturally started to wonder how much of me went into my characters. Some of the characters I can identify as complete fabrications, some appear to be almost my polar opposite and others are exaggerated slithers of my personality.

It’s a weird thing to think about because we actually aren’t that unique. We all think fairly similar thought, feel fairly similar feelings and do fairly similar things. (Insert obvious banal disclaimers here). Given this ‘sameness’ – and the fact that I wrote the damn book – it makes sense that some of my characters resemble me. Slightly.

Fortunately, my main character Daff could never be described as an author surrogate. We share a few things in common, we are both Australian females who grew up in Queensland and we are close in age. These similarities inevitably mean that we share other qualities too, but we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole. The biggest differences between us is our personality and temperament. Daff loves gardening, science and cutting up dead bodies. If she were an animal, she’d be an Ox: stubborn, slow, but relentless.

I, however, am none of those things. I did pretty darn well at high school biology, but that was over ten years ago and I haven’t cracked the spine of a science textbook since the day I sat my final exam. Fucking aced it too. Just saying. But I don’t love science with a capital L. In fact, my good grades were a miracle because I flat out refused to dissect rats, animal organs and grasshoppers. What can I say? Cutting up dead stuff ain’t my thing. (Little wonder I haven’t eaten meat in 12 years…with the one exception of an unfortunate mix up at a Chinese restaurant…). Additionally, I find gardening tremendously boring. Like solitaire boring. Like post office cues boring. if I were an animal, I’d be a dragon because that’s what Chinese astrology assigned my birth year.

That being said, there is a character in my book that reads a little like an alter ego. I wouldn’t describe this character as a Mary Sue, a term that is typically reserved for idealised versions of the author, because Melissa Sweet (oh, hey! Same initials!) is a Harley riding, metal head that wears heavy make-up and way too much silver jewellery. Yeah, she’s pretty cool, but I’m way too introverted for her adrenaline-laced lifestyle.

Looking at my cast of characters, the ones that appear to be the most fabricated – the least like me – are the minor characters. The characters who exist to keep the cogs turning or to bring comic relief. Obviously, my main characters propel the story forward the MOST and they share similarities with me because I needed to have a strong understanding of who they were in order for the plot to makes sense.

Having pondered all this, I suspect that the greatest amount of ourselves probably winds up in our first novels. When examining my short stories, I gotta say, there ain’t much of me in them. Maybe this is because the motivation behind writing a short story, for me, is to challenge myself and my skill levels rather than explore a philosophical theme. Some of these challenges include writing a story where the protagonist makes you feel morally uncomfortable (Sidney Cherry), a story that uses classic horror tropes (The Bell, which you can get if you sign up for my newsletter) and an experimentation with metafiction (Haunted).

As I mentioned at the top of this blog, sometimes the narrator is an author surrogate. While I have no doubt that there are sprinkles of me in my characters, it is the novel itself that is the greatest representation of me. After all, I didn’t write a novel about grief and time, family and friendship, post-traumatic stress and trauma because those topics are uninteresting to me.

‘Are your characters you?’ is a dull question. Some novels are made to be consumed and closed, others are made to be contemplated. It’s within the pages of the book as a whole that you will gain the greatest insight into an author’s psyche. You can dissect characters if you wish, but to do so is to miss the point. It’s not about how much of the author has gone into the book, but what is the author trying to say with the book.

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