“You only have one story to write, and you will write it many ways.” – Unknown
So about that quote attribution. I write “unknown” because… well… I heard it somewhere, thought it would be a great blog topic to explore, and now for the life of me I cannot remember who said it. Internet searches don’t turn up anything useful to jog my memory. Friends and family give me blank stares when I ask if they are familiar with it—if you know where that quote came from and who said it, please jump in and remind me.
That embarrassing little gaffe aside, it’s still a good topic to explore, so I’m running with it.
A while ago, I jumped onto Twitter and on a whim asked my fellow authors if they write themselves into their novels. I’m always curious, you see, about other writers’ habits and processes, and since I know this is something I do in my own work, I wanted to know what the writing community thought. Then I came across that quote from… somewhere… so the timing was pretty convenient for this post.
In researching the idea, however, I came across fellow writer Kelsie Engen’s blog post Common Writing Mistake #2: writing yourself into the story. In it she says, “It’s completely okay to write yourself into a book—as long as you’re prepared for your reader to hate them with the fires of a thousand hells.”
I got a good chuckle out of this because, well, it’s true. But here, Ms. Engen appears to be referring to the classic Mary Sue. If you are unfamiliar with the term, then according to Wikipedia, a Mary Sue is “a generic name for any fictional character (usually female) who is so competent or perfect that this appears unrealistic for the world’s settings, even in the context of the fictional setting. Mary Sues are often an author’s idealized or flawless self-insertion.”
Ms. Engen further explains this phenomenon and why readers are put off by it when she says, “Believe it or not, this happens a lot to new writers. When they’re trying to come up with a character to carry their book’s plot, they unwittingly (or purposefully) insert themselves into the main protagonist spot… The only problem is that beginning writers usually do it with a couple of well-meaning mistakes: 1. They might have blinkers on about who they really are as a person and only show their “good aspects thinking that a reader might not like them if they show their true self, or 2. The author might not quite realize who they are as a person.”
Ms. Engen is spot on here, and while I am referring to the practice from a semi-veteran standpoint, I found this a good piece to throw in to illustrate the distinction between writing a Mary Sue (which I’m not exploring in this post), and writing yourself into your characters to enhance their authenticity. This is the more challenging aspect to writing that can be emotionally bruising for an author. It’s something you have to set out to do with open eyes, knowing that you are (for lack of a better metaphor) pitching yourself over the side of a cliff and giving yourself no soft place to land—praying that your readers will be there to catch you at the bottom, and are willing to forgive your flaws and vulnerabilities when they do.
You see, part of what makes our characters real in our books is their flaws and fears, their hopes and dreams, and even their uglier personality traits which are often irredeemable. We writers aren’t perfect, and neither should our characters be. Sometimes, to find these flaws and traits in our characters and write them in a way that is authentic, we need to do a deep-dive into ourselves to explore those same flaws and traits as they exist in a living, breathing, sentient and fragile human… towards whom we cannot risk being influenced by empathy.
To illustrate this concept, I would like to share a passage from my novel Shadow:
Tilly stared at her uncle. She was no longer in danger of crying, but her cheeks were flushed and she was beginning to lose her nerve. She had never been able to keep her nerve when it was Uncle Doug on the other end. He was uncomfortably forward in his manner. Always. About everything. He spoke bluntly, with little regard to feelings and thoughts that weren’t his own. Sometimes he used his bluntness as a tool to wound. Tilly had never been able to stand on equal ground with him in the few confrontations they’d had in her adult years. He caught her off guard every time she tried, with the things he was willing to say and the lengths to which he was willing to go. Anything to dominate, to win.
It was his conviction of character, that unapologetic willingness to speak without filter or remorse. That’s what she had never been able to match, and she couldn’t do it now. Whatever direction he was prepared to take this conversation, she would not gain the upper hand. Not today.
He took her internal struggle as confirmation of his victory. When he spoke again, he sloughed off a touch of the sharpness in his voice as casually as if he were shedding a jacket.
“Thing is, if I win my case, I’m gonna have the house appraised and I’m gonna sell it. I would have had a real estate agent out to view it eventually, so why not get it out of the way now?”
“And if you don’t win?”
When. She should have said when, not if. Uncle Doug would have said when. She wondered briefly if he grappled at all with the things that came out of his mouth. If he ever wished he’d said something different. Or if he wished other, better words would come more easily to his brain and at the right time. She wondered where things like choice, and outcome, and impact fit into the jigsaw of his logic.
“Then I can’t legally sell it, can I? This guy here would have made the trip out today for nothing. No harm, no foul. Right?”
Choice and outcome and impact pinged against the walls of her mind like the metal balls of an arcade game. What should be her response? Where else could he take this discussion? What was there to say that could be wrong, or right, and how would anything she said play into his cat paws?
“Look, Tillbear,” Uncle Doug said, softening his tone even more. “I hate that this damn will has done this to us all. I hate that my own mother skipped over me to give you this place. I’ll say it: I’m pissed, okay? I’d be lying if I said there won’t be any tension between us now. But she did that to us. That’s the hand we were dealt, that’s the way it’s gotta be. So let’s not complicate things by throwing hurt feelings into this. I want the house, I’m gonna do what I have to do to get it. Or I’m gonna try.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. It doesn’t need to be anything more. It’s not a personal attack on you, it’s business.”
Choice, outcome … impact. She knew what to say. Her spine straightened.
“Then you won’t be offended if I do what I have to in order to protect my inheritance?”
He looked at her for a long moment, allowing her this one small triumph, yet still succeeding in making her feel inferior. Like he was allowing her the victory.
“Like I said, you do what you gotta do. May the best man win, huh? Anyway, we’re done here. The guy’s seen all he needs to.”
Tilly remained silent as he turned and left. She watched his retreating back, watched the ring of perspiration that darkened the collar of his grey tee-shirt, and let the knowledge sink into the pit of her stomach that, once more, Uncle Doug had won. Whatever outcome he judged winning to be, he’d attained it.
Uncle Doug, in this example, is a combination of two people who were once a part of my life. In their living, breathing forms, they possessed a (rather obnoxious) conviction of character that I simply could not match. Tilly, in this case, is me. Uncomfortably “me.” I admit without reservation that I crumble in the face of this kind of conviction, this command of wit. Like Tilly, the many choices I have of things I could say flood my brain and swirl around with all the potential consequences of uttering each word. It is something which paralyzes me, and I am unable to keep up. To fight back. To maintain my footing.
While I admit this without reservation now, believe me, it’s not easy. And it wasn’t easy when I wrote myself into Tilly because, quite frankly, I wasn’t as starkly aware of this personality trait back then. I hadn’t explored it. I hadn’t explored the whys in my own life. This is a real and constant struggle for me, and to make Tilly authentic in the above situation, I had to do a deep-dive into myself to make her response to the fictional Uncle Doug authentic as well.
The age-old adage “write what you know” is revered for a reason. I would encourage my fellow writers to write what they know. If you are a writer, then write those little bits of yourself into your characters, because that’s how you make them real. It requires some often-uncomfortable digging to find out who you really are and why you do the things you do, but your authenticity will come shining through. And hey, as a bonus, it can be quite a therapeutic process. I now understand myself better for having written that piece of my personality into my character, Tilly Bright.
As Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”