It’s really *not* about you. How to write a novel–part 17.

Hands raised in the airQuick! Raise your hand if you’ve ever modeled a character in a story on yourself. C’mon, be honest.

Hmm.

Maybe I should have asked for a show of hands from those who haven’t done it.  Yet. But either way, it points out how common the practice is. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with it. After all, who knows you better than you? Other than your Mom, your spouse, your analyst, and about a dozen others you haven’t thought of in years.

(Psst! Send me $10 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and I’ll respond with your personalized list by return mail. Hurry! Supplies are limited.)

Quite a few of my writing students put themselves in their stories. It’s not something I either encourage or discourage, and usually it’s harmless. I put a power tool repairman in one of my novels. (Resurrection Blues. Awesome story. Buy your copy here.) It felt quite comfy. But I never mistook the character in the book for myself, even though I spent a thoroughly regrettable portion of my life resuscitating dead construction equipment. For one thing, the fictional repair guy was thinner than me and a whole lot better looking.

In too many of my student’s stories, however, the writers struggle to separate their personal history from their make believe. “But that’s what I — oops, sorry. I mean, what she — really wore!” or “really did” or “really said” or really whatever. Please, just stop!

Listen up. No one cares. And no one else will ever know, unless the writer tells them, and then they’ll care even less. Honest! I’m not kidding.

Two sexy girls holding a power drill

Typical customers in need of power tool repairs. I did what I could for them, but for some reason, it was never enough. Go figure.

Back in the day, when I was more concerned with armatures and power supplies than armed assassins and power struggles, I dealt with customers on a daily basis. Some of them were really great people, and I’m reasonably certain some weren’t actually human, but none of them was worthy of inclusion in a work of fiction. And neither was I. Which is the whole point. If you need to cast yourself in a story, do so for a reason–because you have some sort of real world expertise, for example. But then get the hell out of the way. Remove yourself, because no one’s going to believe you if you don’t.

Here’s the thing, the real deal, the secret handshake, the magic words, the phrase that pays, the almighty toilet plunger of truth: fiction readers want a rollicking good yarn, that’s all. If adding your hard-won life experience will make that yarn better, then do it. If not, don’t. Pick a more interesting protagonist, even if it’s not a power tool repairman. Spend a little time finding out what kind of cool stuff such a player knows, and work with that. Maybe it’s a seamstress, a middle school teacher, or a grocery bagger. It doesn’t have to be a mad scientist, a four-star general, or a cover model for True Romance. (I know that guy, by the way, and he’s so weird you wouldn’t want to spend two minutes with him, whether he flexes those massive pectoral muscles or not. Trust me on this.)

Go write something interesting. Something that’s not boring. No one can ask for more than that.

–Josh

Next up: Don’t begin at the beginning.

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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3 Responses to It’s really *not* about you. How to write a novel–part 17.

  1. polinto says:

    Guilty as charged–but you wanted the 50’s!

    How is Annie doing?

  2. polinto says:

    By the way–which part of Eddy’s story was Eddy? The reverend?

  3. joshlangston says:

    We’re getting by, Pam. Thanks for asking. Don’t know about Eddie. He may have driven the tractor. [smile]

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