Author/Character Lookalikes

I saw this picture yesterday and it really had me hmmmming. I've seen pictures of Stephenie Meyer and read Twilight, and I never got a strong vibe that Stephenie modeled Bella on herself in any deliberate way. But, it got me thinking about whether authors, either consciously or unconsciously, sometimes fit their own characteristics into the story, and whether doing this is a good idea. 

Most authors will say that they can relate to all of their characters in some way. Because of that, I think beginning writers, on impulse, might get the idea to siphon experiences, people, and thoughts from real life into their fictional world (how often have we heard the unendingly frustrating and confusing phrase Write what you know?). Sometimes this can work, but more often I've found that real life just doesn't want to blend with fiction. 

From personal experience, I can say that it can be really dangerous to base a character on oneself. In the first novel I wrote and queried (and the only one so far), my protagonist experiences a major trauma early in the book. I was constantly stuck deciding whether she'd be predominately angry or sad, demanding vigilante justice or solving her problems more internally. The terrible thing was that, even after writing and revising the book five times, I still had never really decided. Not deliberately, anyway. When things got complicated or sticky, I just wrote what I would do. As a result, voice suffered horribly (the word "milquetoast" comes to mind), and I had to face the fact that I didn't really know my protagonist. 

Because of the subject matter (dystopia) I knew already that authenticity was going to be a battle, so I think I figured that if I used myself as a compass, the protagonist's actions and reactions would be more realistic. I was WRONG. For one thing, I don't know what it's like to have my hands cut off or survive an apocalyptic disease or fall in love with a king. As long as I was the character, her reactions were never going to be authentic. I realized that an original character could handle this so much better simply by dint of being fictional, thus able to participate in the fictional world. 

I'm having much better luck on the second try. My narrator has gusto, is angry, is sarcastic, is funny, and is different from me in uncountable ways. The new book is realistic fiction, which I find is much easier to lock into authentically. 

Now for Some Unsolicited Advice from Someone Who's Just Figuring This Stuff out Herself: I think beginning authors should avoid writing a protagonist too like them. Have fun creating a protagonist who is vivid, deep, and totally unlike you. For me, writing is so much easier when I'm making deliberate, interesting choices about characters' personalities. It becomes easier to know characters, which makes every other part of writing easier: Dialogue flows better, internal monologue is crisper and has a more defined voice, characters are actually working as characters and not one-dimensional representations of you. One of the most joyous parts of writing is that moment when something completely unexpected and surprising flies from my brain, something I didn't even know I was capable of thinking. Most of the time, those moments come when I'm writing in the mode of a character who is nothing like me. 

Disclaimer: This isn't to say that we shouldn't draw on personal emotions. I really think the phrase Write what you know isn't about content at all, but about accessing honest emotion. You don't need a protagonist to have brown hair, be Catholic, white, or American just because you are in order to lock into truthful emotion. I've found that, actually, the more different a character is to me, the easier it is to access truthful emotion. It's connected to psychology. Take away all the trappings of yourself, and what's left is completely distilled emotion (in theory). 

What are your thoughts about writing characters who are similar or dissimilar to yourself?