Readers and interviewers sometimes ask, “Is your novel’s main character you?” Or “Which of your characters is you?” Both are variations on the theme: “Is your fiction autobiographical?” The answer is: No. And yes. None of the characters is me. And all of them are me.
An author can, of course, thinly veil herself as her main character. Author Diane Ackerman, inspired by her work at a suicide prevention hot-line, wrote a book about the experience, A Slender Thread. Out of respect for both callers and counselors, she knew she needed to fictionalize. “That meant that, in a fictional sense, I was the main character,” she says. But most authors of fiction are not their characters.
So, no, my characters are not me. My characters come from a variety of sources. For example, I may base a character on a person I know. Even then, I have to change the character enough to protect the identity of the real person. What’s more, for the sake of my writing, I need to give this character the freedom to morph and flow with the story. So in my experience, even if a real person ignites a character, in the end, that character turns out to be very different from the original inspiration.
Often a character first comes to me as a voice – not an audible voice, but my muse serves me a line, like: “Linda Mary never worked with her hands on account of she was gonna’ be a movie star.” This character has a fun voice, though I don’t know who she (or he) is. I haven’t used the line, but you can bet I wrote it down. In fact it led me to the novel I’m working on now, although this voice is not one of the characters.
I also create characters out of a composite of real people I’ve known or characters I’ve seen or read about. I can do this consciously, but usually it happens subconsciously. Characters often emerge from some mysterious place – like a dream does. Wherever or whatever that mysterious place is, I suspect it has been primed by my own experiences and all the people I’ve ever met.
So that means yes, all my characters are me. Even the dreadful villains. That’s scary! They all came from my mind and mine alone. I birthed them. Since they come from me, they have only what is roving around in my brain, even when they surprise me.
In any work of fiction, an author can draw on only what he or she can imagine. We do research, of course. I’ve recently researched cancer, comas, grief, and suicide, all in the interest of discovering how people describe the trauma they go through in those situations. But when it comes to truthfully describing emotions in writing, I link to bits and pieces of my own experiences. I’ve grieved, felt betrayed and been enraged. I’ve reached points at which death looked more promising than life. I’ve been shocked by sudden, unexpected bad news. I’ve also felt love and gratitude, relief, comfort, and joy. So when I create characters – which involves motives and personality and emotional responses – I have, ultimately, only myself to draw on.
So, which character is me? None of them. And all of them. That’s part of what makes writing fiction so achingly difficult and so delightfully rewarding.
(Diane Ackerman’s quote is from “A Messenger of Wonder” in Going on Faith, edited by William Zinsser.)
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com