Our characters, our selves

By way of Escape Pod and Pseudopod, I stumbled upon Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing, where the week’s podcast topic was whether one should ever apologize for one’s writing (the short answer is no, of course). Along the way, the episode touched on how there will always be people who think your character is yourself.

Which got me to thinking about how, as a writer, the first thing I learned was that my characters weren’t me; and how the second thing I learned was that they were, after all–at least a little bit.

Not in any literal way. I’ve never put myself into a story directly. Yet when I need to find the emotional core of a character–whether they’re a character I like or a character who creeps me out–I look inside myself.

I think I’ve told this story before: how I wondered where on earth Tiernay West, the protagonist of Secret of the Three Treasures came from, until I complained to a friend that I didn’t want to wear a skirt to a formal event (okay, to my own wedding reception) and she looked at me and said, “Maybe you should just leave Tiernay home for the day.” All at once I got it–Tiernay wasn’t me, but small bits of her came from me, only expanded and exaggerated.

Which I should have remembered, because I used this sort of thing for the second story I ever sold, “Three Wish Habit.” In that one, I have a protagonist addicted to buying wishes from the local genie. As I tried to deepen the story and the character’s emotions, I remember thinking, “Okay, what do I want as badly as this guy wants his next wish fix?” The answer was obvious: I wanted to sell my next story, to prove the first one hadn’t been just dumb luck. So I took the feeling of that wanting, exaggerated and changed it, and put it into the story.

Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes one taps darker emotions than one thought one wanted to. I’ve never wanted to take my own life, but I could write a character who did, because I finally, after some digging, realized I did know the fear of not being good enough, and that that fear, when exaggerated and expanded, can lead down some very dark paths indeed.

And yet … even when I put something of myself into my characters, they’re not me after all in the end — they get their own ideas, do things I didn’t expect, surprise me, bring the story to life by having their own. They do things I wish I could do; they do things I would never, ever do or want to do.

They’re not me and they are me at the same time, I guess.

Maybe stories happen when you take some small core of something you know, and do some research and some thinking, and introduce it to the things you don’t know at all, let them play together, and see what happens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *