Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Part of Ourselves

"Self-Portrait" by Norman Rockwell
Readers often seem to be fascinated with finding out how much of an author's fiction is drawn from life. I'll admit it is interesting sometimes to note the parallels. But since I became a writer I've come to feel a good deal of sympathy for those authors whose personal lives and thought processes are so ruthlessly analyzed by total strangers who profess to know exactly what and how they thought. I now know through experience how things similar to one's own life can find their way into fiction through pure coincidence, or at the very least without the writer being conscious of the similarity until afterwards. I'm frequently wary of sharing where I draw my inspiration, because I feel it would give false impressions—for instance, telling someone that a particular person gave me inspiration for a character seems to imply that the character is my artist's rendering of the person in question. But it isn't! It's not like painting from a model. "Inspiration" can (and most often does) mean something as small as the way a person's mouth twists when they smile, the way they pronounce the word "goodbye," or the fact that they're fond of children—or pickles. The rest of the character is drawn entirely out of my own imagination.

One angle of inspiration that I do find interesting, though, is the question of just how much of ourselves we put into our characters. Judging from my own experience, it's  complicated. In a sense, I don't think we can help something of ourselves getting into most of the characters we write. For me it often comes about unconsciously—I'm usually deep into a story before I begin recognizing that some of my characters' thoughts, struggles or traits are similar to my own. And they're distributed throughout the whole cast instead of being limited to one person. In one novel draft I wrote, there are at least five characters who have something of myself in them—five characters who are very different from each other in other respects.

Another thing I think we tend to do, whether consciously or not, is to write characters who are what we wish we were. I've sometimes wondered if this isn't partly the reason for the difference between some great writers' books and their own lives and morals. Wishful thinking! With me, this seems to crop out mostly in a tendency to give my heroines curly hair—or at the very least a bit of a kink or wave. (Or perhaps it's just that I've fought the battle with stick-straight hair for so long that I'm unwilling to wish it upon my characters.) I think I also tend to write female characters who are much more confident than I am. In person I'm shy and inarticulate, so it's a kind of relief to write girls who can look you in the eye and say what they think clearly and distinctly. Sometimes when I write a milder-mannered woman, I identify with her a bit too much and then we both get bogged down.

So, to sum it up, I think most characters are made up of a combination of things: (A) things that are not like us at all—whether wishful thinking or simply things we made up, (B) traits or experiences of our own that we use deliberately, and (C) elements of ourselves that get in unconsciously. The percentages vary, I'm sure, from author to author. (This is why I'd never dare to write a straight-out how-to post—every writer's creative process is so subjective, though there are things that we all have in common.) So I can never definitely say "This character is me," because they are a blend of so many things that it would really be an inaccurate representation of myself.

What do you think? Do you ever deliberately write characters who are like yourself, or do the similarities only creep in more subtly?


J.T. Webster said...

I so agree with you, Elisabeth. Our characters are a blend of ourselves and people we know, or even people we have read about. And I do think that a lot of that happens at a subconscious level. it's a fascinating subject to delve in to.
The curly hair made me laugh. My heroines have lovely thick curls too. I just can't help myself!
I also think our world view shows up in some form or other in our characters too.
All the best for 2013!

Emmy said...

EXCELLENT POST. And it's a fascinating subject.

Typically I don't try painting a picture of an author's life unless I've read a good many of their books. Sometimes there is a distinct theme or thread that appears in nearly every novel -- for example, my favorite author, John Buchan, frequently uses ennui as a catalyst to force his main character to involve himself in some kind of mission or adventure. I've started to wonder if the man merely found life incredibly dull!

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

JT - Yes, it's fascinating, and at the same time it's something you can't always categorize or pin down, even by studying your own habits!

Emmmy - Either that, or he just discovered ennui was an extremely useful literary device. :)

I agree, you can't draw quick conclusions—and sometimes an author's life can be surprisingly different from their books anyway! The kind of critical analysis that annoys me is when you're informed that because the author knew a lawer named John, every character who's a lawer or named John has some certain significance, etc. :) Glad you enjoyed the post!

Kelsey Bryant said...

I can really identify with what you're saying! So far, the main characters from two of my novels are drawn directly from myself. (Such as being shy but determined to grow.) I can know how their minds work and if I have to wonder what they'd do in a situation, I just consider what I would do! Several other characters have bits of me in them, too, and those usually show up without me planning them. I certainly draw bits -- and only bits so far -- from people I know. Other characters I've written are ones that I wish I was more like. (Extremely gifted! confident! people-person!) : D What fun we writers have! I agree with you about every writer's creative process being different and so certain how-tos don't always work. It's great to have discussions, though.

Ron Scheer said...

This is something I don't like about writing fiction. Readers assume there's a confessional element in what you write, either consciously or unconsciously. It's worse than having a therapist.