I once heard the author Elizabeth Gilbert say, and I’m paraphrasing here, that a reader would likely find more of herself in her works of fiction than her works of memoir. The truth is that all writers bring themselves to their stories, no matter if the story is autobiographical or something distant from our own reality. Today, we’re going to explore how writers bring themselves to the page and why it’s important to realize when and how we’re doing it.
There are a multitude of ways that we can bring ourselves to the page, and as with most things, it’s going to look a little different from writer to writer. But here are just a few ways that our own lives show up in our fiction. And while it might sound like I am talking about realistic, contemporary fiction, the same is true for all genres…even sci-fi and fantasy, thriller and horror!
Characters, particularly the protagonist and especially in first person or close third person, often share personality traits with their author. While on the surface they may be quite different – different lifestyles, different careers, different ambitions – it is often the case that the anxiety the character experiences, or the impatience, or the compassion, has been passed down to them the way height and hair color are in families. Some characters will be carbon copies of their authors, while others will be harder to untangle. We may also model characters’ personalities after those we love (or those we don’t).
Writers often use fictional stories as a way to explore, dissect and better understand the relationships that we have with other people. While we may not choose to openly say “the father/daughter relationship in my book is really about my relationship with my own father, or how I wish it would be,” fiction provides a safe place to imagine how our own relationship might evolve or change, even if it isn’t likely in real life.
Dreams and Desires
In the same way, we can use our characters and our plot lines to explore our own dreams and desires. Maybe we long for adventure, and writing an epic travel novel is a way to nurture that dream. Same with desires. We might write about a person who suddenly becomes wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, or gets swept up in a passionate love affair. Part of being human is dreaming about and desiring things that may or may not be possible for us, presently or ever. Fiction is, again, a safe place to explore all of these things.
Beliefs and Values
Finally, writers bring to the page our own beliefs and values. No, not every character will have those same beliefs and values, but someone will, and it will usually be the hero of the story. Perhaps my protagonist is learning a life lesson that I am working on learning for myself. Or perhaps it’s more subtle. Think about your main character. Even if this isn’t directly relevant to the story, consider what their political, spiritual, and societal values might lean toward. Is it similar to yours? If not, is there another character who is?
Why Do We Do This?
I think that there are a few reasons why writers do this. One is because writing is a way of making sense of our world, so of course we’re going to bring our own world into it. Another is because writers are like all humans…we want to feel seen. Also, when it comes to the writing of emotional, internal storylines, we tend to write what we know.
Notice that I have not mentioned external events, or the action of the story. Sure, the characters may experience events similar to things you have experienced in real life, and maybe you are having to have tactful conversations with family or friends about your book the way you might if writing a memoir. But what I think is far more interesting as a writer, and more engaging to the reader, are all the ways we can explore the thoughts and feelings within us through the eyes of the characters in our novel.
So all of this is to say that all writers bring ourselves onto the page in many different ways, and it is a completely normal and understandable thing to do. But here is what I would like to challenge you to think about. How much of this story that your writing IS you? How much of you is appearing on the page? Is this deeply autobiographical, or something that you are barely attached to?
The reason I want you to think about this is because this is what creates your emotional attachment to the story. And your emotional attachment to the story is what is going to carry you through the hard work of planning, drafting, and revising your novel. Of course, once you get to the place where you are pitching your work to agents or hiring editors, you are going to have to begin to separate yourself from that emotional attachment. But in the meantime, especially at the beginning, your emotional attachment is what is going to get you started and keep you going.
So here is your assignment today. Start with your main character, then work your way down to the secondary characters and even ones with small bit parts. Where are YOU in those characters? Not externally, but internally. Create a list for yourself, and add to it as you write. Keep this list somewhere easily accessible for the duration of the project, and return to it when you feel the motivation lacking.
Writers, knowing that YOU are a big part of your story, even if your story is far removed from your real life, is a valuable tool for keeping your motivation up. Because while your story is important, nothing matters more than YOU do.
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