I recently finished the first draft of my latest novel.
Over time, I’ve developed a trusted circle of first readers who look at my drafts and tell me what is and isn’t working for them. Their comments have varied wildly from novel to novel, based on their personal biases, but there is one comment that I always seem to get from one or more of my first readers for every book. It goes like this:
“Character X really reminded me of you.” or, the variant, “I know who Character Y is supposed to be!” (Referring, of course, to someone we both know)
Oddly enough, I’ve even had people who, on finding out my occupation, explicitly request not to end up in my books. The good news is, I’m not a tabloid reporter, and (most) of my friends aren’t celebrities, so no worries that I’m going to go out and write a thinly veiled expose on my gaming buddy’s tragic fast food addiction. However, I both do and don’t put people I know, myself included, into my books, and whether or not I can control it is another issue altogether.
After all, no matter how epic the plot, or how far-out the world-building may be, a story has to come from somewhere. People have differing philosophies on the topic of where ideas come from, but personally, I believe that all art is either a reflection of the artist’s time, place and social milieu, or a reaction against those things. In either case, the art itself is still a reflection of the artist’s personality and experiences. Even if I were to write a character that is the opposite of everything I do and believe, that character would still be a reflection of my personality, because they would be a product of my own biases when writing my opposite. So, I can never really outrun my basic personality, experiences and biases, and neither can anyone else. I can only imagine what the other side might look like, and naturally, my imaginings are coloured by the way my brain works.
If we accept that this theory is true, and even the characters in my books that don’t look or act like me are a product of my personality and experiences, then all of my characters are in some way a reflection of me. By this same theory, they are all not exactly me either. They’re more like a convenient patchwork of people and things I’ve experienced that suits the story, and over time they tend to develop a life of their own.
There are, however, a few notable exceptions, times when either I have ripped a character almost wholesale out of the pages of my life and pasted it in my work, or I have used a character to help me work through something that was really bothering me. Those exceptions, I think, are worth writing about.
The first one is Wardan, the antagonist… oh, hell, let’s call him what he is. He’s the villain of my first novel, Flood Waters Rising. Wardan got his start in the crazy, hormone-soaked days of my first couple of years in college, when I had a crush on a guy who was not my boyfriend. We hung out all the time, and played tabletop games together, and I thought he was a really great guy. I was starting to wonder if, perhaps, he might be a better match for me than the guy I was with, and I was thinking of making the switch. And then, another one of our mutual friends died very suddenly in a freak accident.
In the aftermath of our friend’s death, I reached out to this guy to offer my condolences, because they had been close. I simply said, ‘Sorry to hear about his passing’. With the coldest, most matter-of-fact expression I had ever seen, he informed me that he was a scientist, and that he didn’t believe that someone’s body ceasing to function was any reason to get upset. After that, we drifted apart rather quickly, but my hurt and confusion over his callous behaviour remained. I felt betrayed, and foolish for having feelings for him. Furthermore, I felt afraid that someone I had been so close with could have had such shocking lack of empathy and that I didn’t notice at all.
Over time, my hurt and confusion morphed into a drive to say something about my experience, to comment on what happens when people get so caught up in the idea of science and logic that they forget about the human element in their lives. I created a gifted young biologist whose ability to bring others back to life causes him to see life and the suffering of others as cheap toys for his amusement. I began writing Wardan into my novel, and he became the perfect counterbalance to my protagonist, Sithon, who has the capability to be vicious and destroy others, but fights against it with all his might.
That’s all for now, but this thread is going to be continued on Sunday, with the characters that have helped me develop the most as a person.