28 November 2015

I’m Not My Protagonist! Oh, wait a minute…

My college Crafting a Novel students often hear me say, “You can’t make every character sound like yourself.” And it’s true. Most beginning novelists (at least the ones in my class) write themselves into their books. The star of the book – the protagonist - sounds and looks an awful lot like the writer himself. Has the same likes, dislikes, and insecurities. But is of course, more heroic.

In fact, we come slamming up against the famous saying, “Write what you know.”

And some know themselves pretty well. (Others, not at all, but I digress…)

A protagonist who is a barely veiled, idealist version of yourself? We’ll allow you that for your first book. But if an author persists in writing the same protagonist over and over again, in every book and series they write, things get pretty stale.

So that prompted me to look at my own series to see what I had done. Ten books in now, I held my breath.

The Character I wish I was

I started the Land’s End Fantasy Trilogy when I was dearly in need of escape. My mother was dying. I remember looking at her hospital bedroom wall, and thinking, ‘if I could walk through that wall into another world right now, I would.’ That’s how the first of the series, Rowena Through the Wall, came about. I started writing it in the hospital.

Rowena isn’t me. She is the ‘me I wish I was,’ at least at that difficult time. I wrote the character I wanted to be. She’s prettier than me, more generous than I am, and in the end, more courageous. I was dealing with the issue of courage at that time. Courage to face what was coming and what was inevitable. I wonder how many readers of that series would nod their heads, hearing me say that now?

The ‘Me’ my Mother Wanted Me to Be

Next I grabbed A Purse to Die For off my shelves, a book I co-wrote with Cynthia St-Pierre. This book is in a different genre – it’s amateur detective, or classic mystery. The second book in the series, A Killer Necklace, has just come out.

The protagonist is a fashion diva – a television personality from the Weather Network. She’s drop-dead pretty, and always put together.

I am not. Spending more than ten minutes on my long hair is an impossible chore for me. You won’t find high heels in my closet. I like clothes, but am not a slave to fashion.

But my mother was. My mother was a fashion diva until the day she died. We’re pretty sure she was the longest subscriber to Vogue magazine, ever. Mom dressed me in designer clothes all my childhood. She was delighted when I did a little modeling as a young woman.

I never quite came up to her standard of fashionista though. “Put on some lipstick,” she would say.
“You look like a ghost!”

Looking at the series now, I can see that the main character is the ‘me my mother wanted me to be.’ It was, in a way, my tribute to her. Wish she could have been here when the first book was published.

The Closest I get to Me

So where am I in all my books? That’s easy.

I’m The Goddaughter. Sort of. In this wacky crime caper series, the protagonist is a mob goddaughter, who doesn’t want to be one.

I’m half Sicilian. I had a Sicilian godfather. I had to wait until certain people died in the family before I wrote this series.

In Gina Gallo, the ambivalence is there. ‘You’re supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is this one?” Gina says this in every book of the series. Those words came directly from my mouth.

This book is meant to be laugh out loud funny. I let loose with my own wit, and shook off the inhibitions. Not that I’m very inhibited normally. But in The Goddaughter series, you get the real me peeking out. Not idealized. Not always upstanding. Sometimes just looking for a way out of a real mess, possibly of my own creation. But kind of fun to be with, I think.

So that brings us back to the beginning. One of the delightful things about being an author is allowing yourself to ‘become’ a character other than yourself, as you write. Fitting yourself into their skin, so to speak. As you write more, this becomes more fun, and more of a goal. I LOVE putting myself into the mind of a killer in a short story, if only for a little while. It’s a kick to ‘pretend’ to be someone else, by writing their story.

Let’s be honest: who needs drugs, if you’re an author? THIS is the ultimate escape.

Do you relish creating characters and living their lives through your fiction?

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  1. I can see those aspects of you very clearly in your books, Mel - all of which are a delight!
    I had to do some soul-searching when I read this piece. None of the women in my short fiction are particularly nice. In "Stooping to Conquer" the protagonist poisons her rival; in "Sugar & Spice" there is a group of quintessentially "mean girls"' in "Torch Song for Two Voices" the narrator wreaks revenge on her unfaithful love; and even in :Thrice the Brinded Cat" the heroine does some not-so-nice things to save herself, her lord, and her mentor. Does this mean that I am at heart not a nice person? Shrug. Who knows?
    In my (unpublished) novel, the female protagonist has some elements of me, but also some wannabe traits.....
    Maybe I should just pass my writing on to a shrink!!!

  2. You might w t to in troduce your students to the concept of the Mary Sue, which essentially is the author with super powers. very popular in fan fiction fora while.

  3. Yes, Melodie, I can certainly relate to this blog. Many of us take a few of our own characteristics and kick them up a notch in our protagonists. Or two notches. My Bliss Moonbeam Cornwall is the me I wish I could have been back when girls had to be "ladies". There sure was no fun in that. Through Bliss, I am now free to do and say whatever the heck I want! Melodie, keep writing about Gina, and we'll keep reading about her.

  4. I write short stories and have only used the same character in multiple stories twice, so I have to come up with a lot of characters, and I think each one probably has a little bit of me in it. The snarky ones? Yes, that's partly me. The earnest ones? Yes, I have that in me too. The southern ones? I'm not sure where that comes from, but it's clearly in me. The needy ones? Me, sometimes. The angry ones? Yeah, me too, at least in my head at times.

    I think we all have different parts of ourselves. Some we share with the world on a daily basis. Others we only break out for special occasions, like when we get really angry or drunk and say or do things we're embarrassed about later. Those things you say and do--they're all you, though maybe a part of you you try to keep tame. So probably every character of mine is partly me, some way, somehow. It makes sense. I try to bring my characters to life, so I put myself in their head, and my reactions, my sensibilities, will come through. I guess that explains why a friend once told me that no matter which of my stories she's reading, she can hear my voice telling the story. My characters are me and I am my characters, no matter how different they are.

  5. Joan, isn't that a hoot. I never thought about the shrink aspect of "why am I always writing nasty characters?" Grin. I remember my mother saying long ago, when I won my first short story award, "Why would you ever want to write about something like *that*?" It was murder of course. And I still can't answer that.

  6. I shall have to look up Mary Sue as a plot device, Rob! I've never delved into fan fiction.

  7. Gloria, I totally see you in Bliss! So maybe you fall into the category 1 above "the me I wish I was?"

  8. Barb, I can so relate to your comments. And perhaps 'voice' is exactly the way to put it. The interesting thing I am just admitting to myself: I can live in the mind of a nasty protagonist for the length of a short story. But for a novel, which takes me a year to write, I really have to enjoy fitting into the skin of the protagonist. And that usually means creating someone who I like. (I don't like nasty people.)

  9. In my first novel, the protagonist definitely has a lot of me in her: again, fitter, prettier, more courageous. She evolved differently though as the novels continued. I love the challenge of trying to create characters that are totally different from anyone I know; people who are psychotic and evil. That's fun for me for some weird reason!

  10. I think everyone I write is me; but the most "me" is when I write from a child's POV. That voice is frighteningly easy to maintain...

  11. Cathy, your dark side is showing :) Thanks for commenting!

  12. Eve, that is fascinating. I've never written from a child's POV, I've just realized now. Wonder what a shrink would say about that?

  13. I've been psuedo-LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) long before it was a thing and well after most kids give up playing pretend. So, are my characters me? No. But I am them for a while.

    I've had people ask, after reading about Kate Garrett in my Deadly series, if my father was a police officer. No. My mother was in the insurance field, however, so listening to her stories gave me the idea having an insurance-related plot in Deadly Legacy. As for Deadly Season... the human violence in the book does come close to home, but not to me.

    I have never found, nor wished to find a dead body in my living room, but I did think that it would be an interesting solution to replacing the worn carpet in my living room. That's were A Bodyguard to Remember starts.

    Is there a little bit of me in my characters? Of course. There's a little bit of a lot of people in them. I think writers were the ones that gave genetic engineers the idea.

  14. Rowena Through the Wall is a great title. Most writers might have simply stopped at Through the Wall, which wouldn’t have been the same at all.

    I sometimes write the Leigh-I-wish but more often, I seem to write shades of my dad and once, for an ambiguous bad/good guy, I wrote my brother. The writers of Longmire seemed to cast my father as well.

    Like you said, Who needs drugs? Or enemies? They make great characters too.

  15. I don't do the real thing with and organized group. That's my ex's thing. But yes, live action role playing, with people who are as into it as you, is a lot of fun. It's like improv without an audience.

  16. Leigh, Longmire rocks! There's something about that man- the rough and ready, along with the gentleman to women. They got that appeal right.

  17. And Leigh, thanks for your comment on Rowena Through the Wall. I like to put names of characters in my titles, particularly when I write in first person. It makes it obvious to the reader whose story we are telling.


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