Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Writer's Character

Writers often get asked how much of themselves show up in the pages of their books. Writers, on the other hand, often have to say that they are not their characters.

The truth is that rarely is a fictional character based solely on the author. But this is not to say that authors don’t put something of themselves in everything they write. They assign their beliefs to different characters. They use their own knowledge or skills for characters. Different characters display emotions of the author.

That really scary book? Good chance it’s based on a nightmare of the author. If it’s not one he/she had at some time, it’s one s/he’s thought out and put on paper. That fantasy character who can become invisible and watch people? The writer perhaps dreamt that as a child or wishes the ability was real as an adult.

It’s not all “write what you know.” If we only wrote what we knew, we might have only one book to write. And it might be rather dull. But that statement could hold water if you took it to mean write what you can learn. You put in not only what you already know and believe, but what you can research and learn.

A bit of the author is in every book s/he writes. But so are a lot of other things.


  1. There's a great quote about this, and I can't remember either the quote, or who it's by. But that's not enough to stop me ...

    It was something along the lines of 'the first great secret of authors is how little of themselves there is in their characters. The second great secret is how much of themselves there is.'

    I think it may have been one of Philip Roth's novels. I know somebody will no doubt correct me on both the quote and the author!

  2. I love the: "But that's not enough to stop me ..."

    I've not heard that quote, but it's a good one. I need to copy it and hang it on my bulletin board!

  3. You know, I'm suddenly worried that I was actually quoting myself, from several years ago, in my last comment.

    This reminds me of the writer who was accused of stealing parts of Martin Amis' The Rachel Papers for his novel. His explanation was that he used the same notebook to record his own ideas, and interesting paragraphs that he found in other books. Apparently, he never thought to differentiate between the two.

    No, I'm sure it was Philip Roth ...

    (At times like this, you begin to realize how easily plagiarism can happen.)

  4. You're killin' me, Rob. Do you write comedy? I'm still chuckling.

  5. Do I write comedy? Not deliberately.

    When I actually set out to write comedy, all of my characters immediately become one-dimensional and start tripping over the furniture.

    (tripping in the sense of clumsiness rather than drugs)

  6. I think possibly this -- "Do I write comedy? Not deliberately" -- is the key. When you're wanting to be funny or want a character to be humorous, you'll have to "channel" your own casual voice. You have a nice, dry wit.

  7. Thank you for the compliment!


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