On this beautiful Thanksgiving weekend, let’s be thankful to all the people who’ve ever asked an author, “Is Mary Sue’s story based on yours? You and her are a lot alike!” Without those people, I would not be writing this.
In the dozens of novel ideas I’ve had and started (most of them not making it past five chapters with few exceptions) I have not based my main character on myself. They were all their own individuals with their own quirks and flaws and habits and experiences.
But people just love asking writers if their characters are based on themselves. It has happened to me, and you see it all the time in author interviews.
And once an author admits that yes, my punk-rock ninja boarding school heroine is based on myself, it doesn’t ring the same. Mary Sue is based on the author? Well, that’s, that’s….that’s cheating! Why couldn’t she just write a memoir? Isn’t that, you know, pretentious? Wow.
Suddenly people are treating the author the same way people treat those unfortunate souls who announce their love for One Direction. “Oh, well, I guess that’s your choice…but we’re not friends anymore. I’m deleting you from Facebook.”
Very not cool.
The next step up (or down?) from this is when writers take themselves and make them better. Thinner, more confident, usually with added combat skills and some steamy romantic interest. This is even worse in the eyes of people who find this out. It’s just…weird to most readers.
But here’s the deal. My characters are not me, nor are they better, stronger versions of myself. That being said, a lot of the times the easiest things to write are things I know best. “Write what you know” mantra. That includes certain circumstances and certain reactions. First hand experience is the most accurate way to present the same situation in writing, and I incorporate this into my storytelling. It could be something small, like a joke I shared with a friend, or a similar reaction to the wedding of Will and Kate.
There are aspects of my life that make for good reading. So why not include it? It isn’t intended to be a reflection of my life or the way I live it, but it makes my characters’ lives a wee bit more genuine.
But these are far and few in between. Great Aunt Emily in my WIP, for example, is a total figment of my imagination. I never had such a great aunt (thankfully). There are a few exchanges between characters that are snapshots from dialogue with a friend, and little annotations about things like rural life (e.g., the smell of manure in July) or the woes of going to a small high school.
Taking this another step deeper, I like telling stories that are “real” and “relatable.” I mean, who doesn’t? That’s the obvious goal of every writer. I grew up in a small town — a village, technically. The cow to person ratio is something like 6:1. You always get the “small town girl/boy” protagonist dominating YA stands, but this always bugged me; if they have their own high school, or more people than cows, then I don’t see it as “small town” simply because of my own experience. I relate best to 6:1 cow-to-people communities. I want to read about them.
So I’m writing one.
It’s not my life. I am not Ingrid Fletcher. Her story isn’t mine. We share similarities and some characteristics, but if I wanted to write my own story I’d write an autiobiography or start a hardcore diary. I’m a bit of a bookworm. Ingrid is 100x the bookworm I am. Ingrid is 100x shyer than me. Her friendships are different, her opinions are different, her habits and flaws are different, her deepest darkest secrets are completely her own. I’m just helping her explain everything to the reader in the most accurate way I can, without, you know, going skydiving so that one scene is all the more genuine.
No sir. I am not going skydiving for Ingrid’s sake.
Do you incorporate aspects of your own life to your writing? Is your protagonist a slightly different version of you?