We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Write What You Know’ and it makes a whole lot of sense. Writers need to tap into their feelings and experiences in a way that is unique to artists of all kinds; authenticity in whatever it is that you create is absolutely key to success. Even authors who create vast, supernatural landscapes are, to a certain extent, tapping into what they know. Hermione may be a witch, but there’s a good chance that J. K. Rowling had a bookish, swotty friend (or, perhaps, she was herself bookish and swotty) and that this shaped the bulk of Hermione’s character, spells and incantations aside.
It is inevitable that the characters blooming in our imaginations will reflect or embody our friends and family from time to time. After all, the people we know best in the world are the people whose virtues and flaws are the most understandable to us. Who better to bring to life in fiction than those to whom we can genuinely relate?
My current problem is that I am finding it difficult to move away from this like-for-like character portrayal and to create characters who develop a life and mind of their own. Recently I began creating a female character and soon enough I realised that I was essentially describing my mother, albeit with a more garish hair colour and keener sense of fashion. When I try to write about men of a certain age, they slowly come to resemble my dad. When a think of a joking character with a wordy sense of humour, I think about what my brother might say.
This may not seem immediately to be a problem, but I can’t help but feel that creating an entire cast of characters who, in one way or another, resemble your entire family, is asking for trouble.
This was an issue I was already finding frustrating when I came across this quote from Norman Mailer:
“It’s not a good idea to try and put your wife in a novel. Not your latest wife, anyway.”
Great advice. And also inherently problematic. Not everybody goes down the multiple marriage route and can take this liberty. My boyfriend is one of the most colourful characters that I have ever met, if not the most. He is driven, lively, intensely loving, and passionate about everything that he does. He is also argumentative, infuriatingly stubborn and an all-round pain in the ass. Given that I had never been in love before meeting him, he features in my writing so much that if I were to actually publish a novel, he may as well take 30-40% of the profits.
However, Norman Mailer has a very good point. In order to fully explore the world of fiction, you need to paint an honest and intricate portrait. In doing this, my boyfriend would have his flaws, as well as his virtues, printed in black and white on many a print, and likely across the internet as well. Given the modern world’s fervent desire to know everything about everybody else’s personal life, readers may draw parallels, whether we want them to or not.
Naturally, I am in no way remotely close to publishing anything. Like, at all. Zilch. But these worries are real and persistent and I would be interested to know if anybody else feels as awkward as me about it.Despite people being aware of their own flaws to varying extents, is there something unacceptable about putting it in print for the world to read? Is there any way for me to move away from this or is this just an inevitable aspect of creating fiction?
…Collateral damage, one might argue?