The Thin Line Between Author and Protagonist

This is a cautionary tale.  Your readers will always assume that, to some extent, the hero in your story is you

Which means you need to take care if it is important to you what they think in that regard.

There are no guidelines for this one, just a warning and a call to action.

And the action here is called awareness.

On one level, we are our heroes. 

Sometimes, when we do it right, we are even our villains.  And there’s nothing wrong with it… on one level.  Because it’s unavoidable.

Don’t deny wondering what demons are bunking in Stephen King’s closet to inspire all that creepiness.

Within this inevitability there are two things an author needs to keep at the forefront of their intentions:

–         First, you need to be clear about how much of yourself, however thinly and cleverly veiled, you desire your hero to emulate.   Because anyone and everyone who knows you will see it and know

–         Secondly, everyone else will just assume that’s you.  And that is something you just have to accept and live with.

Intention empowers you, and you are alone with the consequences.

The Consequences of Transparency

The outcome of either case is the same – people will assign meaning to the nature of the character, and attribute that meaning to its creator – you.

Which means, if your hero has a quirk, and when you write about it with enough visceral detail that convinces readers this is how it looks and what it feels like in the real world, they’ll assume you have the very same quirks, preferences and experiential context.

If your hero has a foot fetish, the world will believe you have a foot fetish.  If the hero harbors deeply held prejudices, the world will assume they are yours, as well.

Nothing you can write in your story can change this.  And your publisher won’t print the disclaimer you send in with your bio.

Pretty much all of Dennis Lehane’s novels have some relationship to child abuse.  If you’ve seen the film Mystic River, you saw it in that story.  When you encounter it again in his other works – including Shutter Island – you don’t doubt that Lehane is writing what he knows.

Does Lehane care that we know?  We can’t be sure.  But we can be sure he had the courage to write about it either way.

In my first novel, Darkness Bound, the antagonist was a devastatingly seductive woman who manipulates the hero to do her wicked bidding.  Was that me?  Was the villainess my wife? 

Poor thing, she didn’t write a word of that story and to this day people still ask her, “are you the Dark Lady?” 

As she denies that she was, in fact, the inspiration for the Dark Lady, I’m usually in the background grinning mischievously.  Not because it’s true, but because it’s fun that people think it might be true.

Fact is, my wife is hotter and far more dangerous than the Dark Lady, so of course they’d think that. 

In three of my five novels my protagonist happens to have a job, and in one case a training seminar, that also resides on my resume.  So were those characters me?

Not by intention.  But certainly by default to some extent.  Because – again – it’s a nearly unavoidable inevitability.

Did I knowingly select those careers so I could infuse a bit of arena into the story?  Absolutely.  In the name of writing what we know, we incline people to believe we are deliberately writing a thinly veiled version of our ourselves.

Only you can determine how thin that veil actually is.

The hero in my current novel is named Gabriel Stone.  We don’t have the same job, his wife isn’t remotely hot and dangerous (actually she’d dead), and unlike those other three stories I deliberately avoided other concentric circles of experience between the character and myself.  And yet, someone who knows me well said this on Facebook: Do the names Gabriel Stone and Larry Brooks alliterate similarly?  Yes they do.

My point here is that the correlation will be unavoidable. 

So take care with how close you come, especially with issues that people in your life may notice.

Those are the only ones you should care about anyway, at least on this count.

That said, you should care deeply about how your readers feel about your hero, irrespective of how close – or not – he or she comes to the truth about yourself.

Vulnerability and courage are great things in a writer.

You should also take great care with other characters in your story that might cause people you know to believe they see themselves in your fiction.  It’s easy to base characters on people you know, but don’t for a moment think you can hide that fact afterwards.

If they read it – and you may be surprised at how many people in your life won’t get around to reading your published novel, even when everybody tells them they’re in it – they’ll assign meaning to how that character behaves relative to how you truly feel about them.

I heard that the mother of a friend whose name I’d used in my second book – just his name, the persona of the character was nothing like the real guy – for a rather dark and suspect character, wasn’t happy with how I’d libeled her son.

The son, it seems, never the read the book, but he’d heard about it from his mother.  Which explains why I didn’t hear from him over the next four years.

We’ve put that behind us these days, but he still hasn’t read the book.

True story.

Write with courage and truth.  Just be mindful of the consequences you may be creating, both for yourself and others.

And then get ready to field the question: is that you?

Of course it is.  And everybody knows it.

Two referrals for you today:

I recently posted an article on Problogger.net called “Instant Blogging Karma,” in which I leverage the genius of John Lennon for my own nefarious purposes.  You can read it HERE.

And, I’m busy all week with an online workshop on story structure over at SavvyAuthors.com, with some very detailed articles on infusing structure into both your story planning and your drafting. 

You can catch all the\ose posts HERE, plus some lengthy responses to reader questions and comments, a few of which have exposed my limited working knowledge of the romance genre.

Is that me?  Of course it is.

7 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

7 Responses to The Thin Line Between Author and Protagonist

  1. Timely post for sure, Larry. I was driving down the road a few days ago thinking of some bizarre plot twist ideas. I said to myself, “If you write this, people will think you are crazy,” and wondered how published writers do it.

    Glad I read this. Very glad.

  2. In my third novel (of a series), I introduced a third-level character who was me. He acted the same, behaved the same, had the same abilities and had the same personality traits.

    As a third-level character, he didn’t really influence the plot, etc., but just popped up every now and then.

    If anyone asks me, I can say, “No, Bob Reynolds isn’t me, but take a look at Ben Talbert.”

  3. Steve

    In my current story, the sister of the protagonist is a combination of my sister and several girls I grew up with (dated). It was unintentional, but it’s there.

    I’m going to hold off on the story about a cross dressing circus clown who dreams of winning “so you think you can dance.”

    And I’d say in light of this information we should beware of anyone close to us that has a tendency to act like a psychologist in the first place.

  4. Sandra S. Richardson

    If I ever get going on a novel, we’ll see what happens. Usually, I don’t see me in my stories at all but others do.

    Steve said:
    “And I’d say in light of this information we should beware of anyone close to us that has a tendency to act like a psychologist in the first place.”

    I’d best watch out for my daughter-in-law creeping into a story then as she IS a psychologist. 😀

    Sandra

  5. Monica Rodriguez

    Thanks for these thoughts, Larry. And yes, very timely. I have been wondering if my MC of my WIP is too much like me, since it’s not my intent. From what I understand you saying, the similarities are inevitable, but if I’m aware of the tendency I can control how similar my MC is to me.

    Great job on the workshop over at Savvy Authors. I think all the participants are appreciating your work.

  6. Great post Larry!

    I have several thoughts on the subject.

    1. I believe all writers inject themselves into every character they ever write–whether or not we’re actually aware that we’ve done it–we do. I don’t think we can avoid it. For one thing we’re complex beings and all closely related in some regard to our emotions, quirks, fallacies–whatever. For another thing, we know ourselves better than we know anyone else or better than anyone else knows us.

    2. I believe we all have a good side and a bad side. How we’re raised and our own moral values usually control which side is prominent, but there is good and bad in all of us. I’m sure even Mother Teresa wanted to smack someone once in awhile. Circumstances can also change how we behave. People who would never harm a fly are capable of severely hurting you when it comes to protecting their children.

    The thought of ever having to take another human life is horrifying to me. But if someone were attacking my children (who are all grown now) or my husband, I think I would react and never even flinch. But committing a cold blooded act doesn’t necessarily make a person cold blooded. The human mind, the human heart and human emotions are not only complex, but tricky as well.

    3. Yes, I’ve wondered about Stephan King. Knowing how twisted his creative mind can be, I don’t really think he’d ever act upon many of the things he writes about–but it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
    I also find it amusing that people (readers) do come away from a book with the inkling that the writer may have a dark side (albeit hidden) and that they’ve injected themselves into the character in some way. But that’s also part of the intrigue of being a reader.

    In my bookshelf I have a book on psychology, one on abnormal psychology and the Faber Book of Madness. Does that make me twisted? Nah, it just makes me a writer with a fascination of the human psyche’. But as long as our readers keep wondering–I guess we’ve done a good job.

    I’m really enjoying the workshop at SavvyAuthors. It’s top notch.

  7. Oooh, this was a good one, especially the frustrating connection between an arena you can do well, and too much of the author’s preferences creeping into everything. JK Rowling’s hatred of middle class suburban housing estates, health food obsessions, clean, tidy kitchens and a host of other things suffused her stories, but at least she spread them across dozens of characters and settings and seven books.