Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Don't do anything I wouldn't do

Writers are not their characters.

Not unless they are writing autobiography, and by autobiography I mean a story that explicitly in words presents itself as autobiography. Even then, what you are likely to get is a version of the writer on the page, not the truth entire.

We are not our characters. They are not us.

Oh, sure. We've written them. They wouldn't exist without us, and they would exist differently if written by someone else. There are pieces of each of us inside all of the characters we've written, and pieces of other people, too. We steal from everywhere. But we are not our characters, even if we share a name, a hair color, a gender with the person on the page. Even if we are writing in first person.

I had a conversation recently about my story, "The Face of Heaven So Fine." "I don't know if I could have written that story in first person. I mean, the sex and the cutting." "You get that it's fiction, right?" "Yes, but it's you."

No, but it's not.

I write in first person a lot, though not exclusively, and I nearly always write with female leads. Which means this isn't the first time that I've had a variation on this conversation. I would have thought that the fact I write fantasy would have exempted me from it, (I mean, my first published story was about a woman who disappears into the books her lover writes, which, if that had been autobiographical, I think would have made a paradox that would have prevented me from ever writing it) but no. Especially when I write "I," the assumption is that I'm the one in the story.

I recently wrote a story about a serial killer. In first person. That's not me, either.

I get the desire to find writers in their works - I come from literary academia, where sometimes, that's the entire focus. What do we know about the writer and her life, and where do we see that manifest in her fiction? And we all know that piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." So we assume all fiction is drawn from life, and if all fiction is drawn from life, then clearly the writer must be in there.

And clearly we are. But just as clearly, we are not. Shakespeare was never a teenage girl. King is not a murderous clown. Rowling is not... well, actually she might be a wizard. But I hope you see my point. If all we put on the page is miniaturized versions of ourselves, we will very quickly run out of stories to tell. If we've done our jobs, our characters are more than their creators. Let them be.


  1. Just had a similar conversation recently. The assumption drives me batty.

    No, you are not seeing me on the page. You are not learning anything at all about my hopes and dreams, fantasies and fears--unless I decide very specifically to put it on the page on purpose, and then you only get to know that if I tell you. If you enjoyed the story, then what you have learned is that what I write is to your particular taste.

    Even the stories that use events and experiences that actually happened to me are *still* not stories *about* me.

    The curtains are, in fact, just blue.

  2. And yet - "Madame Bovary, c'est moi".