Friday, June 4, 2010

I Am Not My Character

When I began writing Some Kind of Normal in first person, the voice of Babs took over. There were times, especially in those early chapters, when Babs would say something that would make me cringe. Things that I went back and deleted, thinking: "I can't write that!" Especially when she calls diabetes a fat people's illness. Even now, I cringe.

Then I realized that this wasn't my story. It was Babs', and if it was going to be authentic, it had to be from her perspective, with all of her own quirks and flaws and prejudices. I had to let go of my internal editor and realize that readers will get that. Readers will understand that this isn't my opinion. It's fiction.

Yeah. Right.

Turns out, readers - especially those that know me - are looking for me in the book. And they assume some of it is me.

I take it as a compliment most of the time. I've had a lot of people I don't know ask if Babs is a real person, because they feel like she's real to them. That's the hugest compliment I could get. But the fact is, Babs is totally fictional. She's not based on me, or on anyone I know. And for the most part, I worked really hard making her as unlike me as I could so people wouldn't see me in it.

Yet, a character is always some part of the writer. We write from our own realm of experiences and exposures. From the simple things, like the kind of potato chips a character might be munching on to the larger things, like the way the way they might react getting life-changing news. We don't have to have eaten those chips or had that exact news, but exposure to the vast array in a grocery store or hearing bad news of another kind form a foundation from which an author can draw.

It's true that I might place characters in a Mexican restaurant because I like Mexican food (one friend pointed this out to me), but in truth, I put them in a Mexican restaurant because they are Texans, and when I lived in Texas, that's what most restaurants in the small town I lived in were. It felt more authentic than putting them in, say, an Olive Garden. So even though my experiences influenced the character's choice, my personal preferences didn't. (As proof, one character ate chile rellenos, which I hate!)

The fact is, readers don't connect with characters necessarily because they are living out the same plotline in their real lives. They connect because, despite the differences in situations, human emotions are common ground. 

In the way that Babs was brash and opinionated and loud, my newest character is quiet and angry and deeply hurt. She is everything I'm not. Which doesn't mean I haven't felt hurt or angry at times. I, too, once packed everything I owned in my car and drove half-way across the country to a state where I knew no one to set up a new life for myself. But for very, very different reasons, and with a very different relationship with my family.

And yet, I have no doubt some readers will read the book and make assumptions that there are secrets in my life I haven't shared. That there are regrets I haven't moved past. That I can't cook, got sick on tequila once, drink frappacinos, hate kids, ate pizza out of dumpsters, and have a knack for managing questionable adult clubs.

If I write this book well, that's what they will think.

And I'm okay with that.


  1. I love this post. I struggle with this issue because I get caught up in my own voice, battling with my characters' voices. I have to get out of my own head and not worry if people will judge me through my characters.

  2. I love this post. I've dealt with that too, I've had people read something my character says and say, "What?" or be shocked by his colorful language. I don't cuss, but he does. It comes out - and some people don't understand when I say, "But that's Frank, not me."

    They are fiction and even though I get inspiration from all facets of my life, it is not a book based on me or anyone I know. He is his own person.

    Thankfully, since it is a man, people will know I'm not writing about myself.

  3. Great post, and by the way, your story sounds so interesting. That was a nice little summary you had there--it would definitely draw me to read your book :)

    I need to work harder at not making my characters so like me. It's hard sometimes because I haven't experienced everything so I don't know how I'd react. Not everyone is the same but many of my characters react how I think I would react. Okay sometimes, not okay others. But if we make those emotions believable, though, and it comes across the way to a reader, I guess it doesn't matter as much.

  4. I love this post because I really need to get past being my characters, so I can make them do the things they need to do, which isn't necessarily acting the right way all the time.

  5. Brilliant post! In all honesty, I don't think much about the author when I'm involved in a book. I do get ahah momments when I'm reading books written by friends, but I'm not looking for their lives in their stories. When I see a little glimmer of their likes/dislikes in their books it makes me smile.

  6. imagine how stars feel - im sure they are expected to be like their characters!

  7. I love your Babs-everything she said illustrated where she came from. I laughed on the fat-people's disease part. It just showed she had a limited scope of the world, which changed as she learned more.

  8. I've struggled with this as well. In one story my character is named "Celine" so, needless to say, my friends assumed I was the character. Any story, told with heart, grabs the readers attention. Usually when I'm reading I don't 'hear the author in the character. I'm just grateful for his/her imagination, and creativity-both characteristics you got going on!

  9. I have to get out of my own head and not worry if people will judge me through my characters.
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