Your Characters Aren’t You

by Randy Ingermanson

Note: This article is reprinted with Randy’s permission.

At least twice a month, I get a letter that runs roughly like this:

"Hi Randy:

I’m writing a novel about something horrible that happened in my life. Nobody would ever believe what those dirty rotten scoundrels did to me, so I’m making it a novel. It’s gonna be great! The only question I have is what legal problems I’ll face when they read my book. Can I get sued, even if it’s all the exact truth? Do I have to change their names? I want them to suffer!

Sincerely, Joe Wannawriteanovel"

Before you read on, think about that for a minute. How would you answer Joe? Can he get sued for telling the truth?

I usually begin my answer to this kind of e-mail by pointing out that I’m not a lawyer, and therefore nothing I say can be construed as legal advice. Then I say that, so far as I understand it, telling the truth is not libel, but it can be invasion of privacy. So even if a novel tells the absolute truth, the author might still be sued for making private details public.

I usually advise Joe to make a few eeny weeny changes: Change the names of the characters. Change their genders. Change their personal descriptions. Change their ethnic heritages. Change their personalities. Change the facts of the story so that nobody could possibly recognize the circumstances and guess that the people involved are friends or family of Joe. Change everything.

In short, write fiction.

In my view, the legal issues aren’t really the biggest problem with writing a novel based on real people. The real problem is that real situations involving real people make really boring fiction.

In fiction, nothing is written in stone. If you need to edit a Gertrude into a Gary, then you must have the freedom to make that change. If you need to merge five fuzzy characters into two memorable ones, then you must feel free to merge. If your lead character needs a horrible seventh-grade experience involving a tarantula, a blindfold, and an icepick, then you have to be able to conjure up that memory.

You can’t afford to hamstring your fiction with an inconvenient set of facts. If you base your novel on something that really happened, then every time you need to tweak your plot or characters, you’ll hear a voice in the back of your head saying, "But it didn’t happen that way."

Let’s be honest. Fiction is about telling lies. Big, fat, hairy, prevaricating lies. If you want to write about the truth, or approximately the truth, or even something remotely approaching the truth, then the career you’re looking for is called "Journalism." It’s a fine career choice, but it isn’t fiction.

Which leads me to another common question I hear. "Is it OK if I write a character that’s really just me?"

That depends on what you mean by the word "OK." I doubt very much that you can sue yourself for libel or invasion of privacy if you write a character that is just you. (Again, I’m not a lawyer, so if you sue yourself and somehow win, then don’t blame me.)

I see several problems with writing a character that is just you:

  • You may not be quite as interesting as your lead character needs to be.
  • If you buff up your character to be "you plus a little extra," you may wind up looking egotistical.
  • If you add in some traumatic backstory that never happened, your friends and family might get upset. * What will you do for an encore?

Let’s unpack each of these in turn.

Fiction is about characters in conflict. The characters are often a bit larger than life — in some cases, a LOT larger than life. Let’s face it. Although we writers are a talented bunch, most all of us aren’t quite as talented as the characters we create. We’d like to be, but we aren’t. We can’t afford to limit our characters to be no better than we are.

Suppose you write a lead character just like you in every way. Then, halfway through the novel, you realize that he needs to be quite a bit better than you are in some way. Maybe smarter. Maybe faster. Maybe cooler. Whatever. So you tweak him and finish the story and get it published. Now all your friends and family read the story and they see right away that your lead character is intended to be you. But they also see that he’s smarter than you are, or faster, or cooler. Naturally, they’re going to assume that you think you’re smarter, faster, or cooler than you actually are. That makes you look like an egomaniac. Is that what you want?

Suppose you write a lead character just like you in every way. Halfway through the novel, you need to explain why your character is afraid of electricity. You decide to make it plausible by adding in some backstory about being shocked with a cattle prod by an unstable mother. Now you’ve got problems, because it’s going to be "obvious" to everyone that your mother must have tortured you as a kid. If it’s not true, your novel could be construed as libel. If it’s true, your story could be considered invasion of privacy. Either way, your mother may just take you off her Christmas list.

Typically, publishers are interested in doing more than just one book with you. They invest quite a bit of money in developing an author, and it make take a few books to earn back that investment. Suppose you write a great novel in which your lead character is you. That’s wonderful, but who’ll play the starring role in your next book? You might be able to do a sequel that again features you as the lead. But can you keep that up forever? If not, then why get started down that road in the first place?

It’s perfectly OK to inject a bit of yourself in your characters. In fact, I recommend it for every character, even your villains. Give each of your characters some little snippet of yourself, whether it’s your tight-trigger temper or your obsession with stamps from Zimbabwe or your amazing skill at juggling buffalo chips.

You have plenty of interesting quirks and character traits to go around for every character you ever write. Your characters are like your children, and each of them should get some bit of your DNA.

My rule of thumb is that none of my characters should "inherit" more than about a third of their traits from me. I have no idea how much inheritance is too much, but I prefer to be cautious, so I try not to go over a third.

I’ve written several major characters who were physicists. Another was a software engineer, another an archaeologist, another a novelist. All of them shared a major interest with me. But I never thought of any of them as "me plus a little extra," because I’ve always started with somebody who was fundamentally different from me and then added chunks of myself. I think of my characters as "somebody I’d like to hang out with, because we have a major shared interest."

Now here are some questions you might want to consider for the novel you’re working on right now:

  • How much does your lead character resemble you? Will your readers wonder if that character is secretly you? Is it possible that this character is more nearly your clone than your child? Does your character have some trait that makes it clear that he or she can’t possibly be you?
  • How much of your DNA does your villain inherit? Is there nothing in your villain that you can relate to? Is it possible that you might be better able to empathize with your villain by giving him or her some valued trait of yours?

Fiction is a pack of lies that masquerades as truth. Don’t risk spoiling your carefully crafted lies with too much truth — or with too little.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

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2 thoughts on “Your Characters Aren’t You

  1. Interesting post. I often worry about putting too much of me in characters. I actually find writing male characters far easier – it’s simpler for me to distinguish myself from them.

    Either that or really ‘extreme’ (in my view) female characters e.g. ones who have traits I know for sure I don’t possess at all.

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