This Stands For That – writers and their characters

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Fiction writers often bump up against the assumption, made by readers and reviewers, that their main characters are the writer’s cipher for themselves. I know of one writer who was told by a publisher that his first person narrator was a little dull and did actually he see himself as dull? The writer concerned, a few writer friends and myself all looked at each other when we heard, and the expression in everybody’s eyes was the same, basically ‘what the f**k?’

It’s a puzzling phenomenon because the underlying theory must be that there is no imaginative work involved in creating a character. I once read a review of a book where the reviewer pompously declared that ‘everybody knows’ that the main character in a first novel is the writer themselves. I was irritated by this man’s arrogance but he did manage to expose what a deeply pedestrian mind he must have. My condolences to the author who drew the reviewer short straw. (This was back in the day when book reviews appeared in many newspapers).

Now this chap was apparently a lecturer in creative writing. How he got there is anybody’s guess but if I was his student I would find his Psychology 101 assumptions about writers simplistic at best and creepy at the other end of the scale. What the reader gets is on the page. They don’t get access to the writers’ personal history and personality, or only at a much deeper, subconscious level, the level where ‘voice’, that hard-to-pin-down phenomenon, comes from.

Writers mine their own emotional history and embellish with imagination, we pull characters together from all parts of our subconscious and conscious experiences. It is a generous giving of self but not a simple matter of symbolic transfer. We are and we aren’t, we appear and disappear, and that strange union between reader and writer remains, as it should, a wondrous mystery.

It is easier to market a book where the content and the writer are closely identifiable. It is easier to write a review if you have that personal ‘hook’ for your readers. But it is disappointing as a writer to see writing academics and publishers taking the sloppy way out. It could stem from that old axiom, ’write what you know.’ Sometimes it is taken too literally and can confine the writer and confuse the reviewer. I can research places, jobs, historical events, all the props and locations I need, but I must write what I know to be emotionally true. That’s where the ‘write what you know’ can be applied.

My experiences of loss, passion, love, fear, embarrassment, exhilaration, confusion and all the rest are what I know. I situate my characters in all sorts of predicaments, ones which I have never, and will never, experience, but I can write about their emotional responses and reactions because they are human as I am and as my readers are, and that is where, in fiction, we seek to connect, on the emotional level we all know.

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2 thoughts on “This Stands For That – writers and their characters

  1. richardps

    Ah, great piece. A friend of mine wouldn’t finish reading Dead Men because she thought the main character was me and she couldn’t bring herself to read the sex scenes! I am always busy explaining to people that every character of a novel carries a bit of the writer, but that no single one character ever is the writer. R

  2. Phillipa

    It’s like readers have an overpowering need to simplify. I do think authors are present in every word of the book, in ways we can’t control, but not in a such an easy translation. It’s quite exasperating! Thanks for stopping by, Richard.

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