Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How much of Us is there in our Characters?

Few months back,  someone I met at a party  had   read a book where the protagonist was a ruthless woman who used  her relationships ( read men) as  stepping stones to success. The heroine  had no qualms about her lack of scruples or the way she manipulated  the people she encountered. The writer had done a wonderful job of creating a complete  go getter who used people to get ahead in life.

That lady  told me “the writer must have  had so many affairs.” I asked her why she thought that. “The book  is so realistic, I am sure it must be based on her own life. How can she write such a book without undergoing those events?” I was shocked by her thinking that as writers we live the lives of  our characters: meaning our character’s actions mirrors our own. I hastily corrected her limited vision of a writer’s life.  "It’s the power of our  imagination that sees us creating characters who seem  so realistic. That particular writer has just been blessed with an extra vivid imagination. The story  idea could have been triggered by a news report,  or someone she met somewhere, or by a movie. It’s not necessarily based on her real life.” I am sure  my argument did not convince the lady.

 Yes, we do breathe our characters, live them for the duration of  the time it takes us to complete our  books. Our characters  are born out of  our over active imagination. We spend weeks/months   making them believable, and as real as possible,  but they do not mirror  our  lives or are  our  literary  reflections.

 I  write middle grade fiction where my characters are super brats. But I am not one in real life.  The book I am currently writing is about a notorious prankster.  I can say with  complete honesty that I have only played two pranks in my life, both harmless ones.

Just because my protagonist is a mischievous brat, that does not mean I am one too. We writers do give  few of our traits to our characters: strengths and weaknesses, but that’s just about it. The rest is fuelled by our imagination and the power of our words. Every situation and scene is not an exact replay or reflection of our personal life or interactions.  Every scene: good or bad need not be a scene we have  experienced in our lives.

 We writers are great observers of life and we can be called people watchers. Whatever we see is jotted down in our memories and brought to life when we start writing. When we read our completed products we do find few similarities between our characters and ourselves:  maybe few struggles echo our own, few situations mirror our own, and few traits of our characters match ours, but that’s it. The rest is all make believe.

 What about you all? How much of yourselves do you add  into your characters? Are your characters your literary replicas? Is your  story a written  account of your life? Is your life your literary inspiration? Is it like looking in the mirror when you read your books?  


  1. What a wonderful post, Rachna. Writers need not necassarily use their real life as inspiration. Inspiration can come from several sources.

  2. Great post. I think all of my characters have a touch of me in them-- they did come from my head, after all-- but I try very hard to make sure the are NOT me. I want them to be themselves, and sometimes that means they are completely opposite of me.

    Personally, I don't think I'd make a good protagonist anyway. :)

  3. THere might be a little of me in one of my characters, like in how they react when they're offended or how they're obsessed with their job or where they live but mostly they're themselves. I don't write myself into the stories or mould the characters into myself.

    I've experienced where a reader has thought that I must have done what my character did. It made me laugh out loud and I explained to them that wasn't true. I don't think they believed me either. It's funny how some people can't seperate writer from book, like how others can't separate actor from character in a tv serial.


  4. LOL Oh there are pieces of my in my characters, but not a mirror-reflection. I could never do some of the things they do:)

  5. It's like you said, maybe there are pieces, but the books are definitely not closeted memoirs! I've wondered that about other writers though, how much of the mc is found in themselves. It would be fun to know!

  6. Enough of me is in each of my characters (male and female) for me to know them intimately. I like to think they get the best and worst parts of me but really it's probably a sea of grey and if it's anything that makes them seem the same it would be that attribute.

  7. I am definitely in my characters, but less and less the more I write. My imagination is much healthier than it used to be.

  8. I can't say that I am personally a part of any of my characters but the more I understand myself and human nature, it easier it is to make my characters feel more real.

    Some characters you really don't want to be like, but you can understand an antagonist without having to be one.

  9. Very thought provoking. I try to take ideas from people I know as well as myself. It is hard to write from an alternative viewpoint to your own but then we couldn't have both protagonists and antagonists if we didn't I guess. :O)

  10. A thought provoking post. I would say there are bits of me that may go into my characters but not through choice. I don't base my characters on me or anyone I know, and do not write about anything in my life. Just because I wrote about a serial killer doesn't mean I am one, and it would be wrong for a reader to assume I must have homicidal tendencies. I just have a vivid imagination!

  11. Oh yes, in some ways. But there's a WHOLE LOT of Ivy in these two girls. They each have Ivy's features and qualities in some way. And her friends too. Like when she's at horseback riding lessons, I listen. To their speech patterns and the words they use.

    Of course, they don't know this. :)

  12. Oh I totally agree with you, Rachna! My stories are nothing like my real life (obviously not since they're set long ago!). But even the characters problems are not mine. As you said, they may mirror us to a degree after all, when we write we pour ourselves into those characters. But if they resembled us, then every story we write would end up being a boring reflection of us! We absolutely must take our stories above the mirror! :-)

  13. Now that I'm down to memoir, I definitely am in my "stories." But am I really? It is so interesting what comes out on the page. This can't be me! I don't think it is completely. If it were, I think it would be boring!! As in "fiction," one has to pick and choose, and focus on scenes that have suspense and tension. Interesting topic. It's got me thinking...
    Ann Best, Long Journey Home

  14. I know I'm late to the conversation, but I believe we bring different parts of ourselves to our characters. It's hard to remove "who we are" completely from our fiction. For instance, my current character is going to share a similar love of the desert southwest (a definite part of ME, thoughI am nothing like her in other areas).

    I do think it's a natural reaction for readers to "wonder" what parts might be real/might be make-believe. That's part of the fun of being an author ... no one really knows what was drawn from real-life inspiration, and what came from our heads!

  15. Hi, your post got me thinking. I guess, what could differentiate a novice piece of writing from a pro, is how much of the writer can be read through the words.

    I've read somewhere though: No matter what, no matter how, as you write, your message shall come through.