Sunday, October 3, 2010

Writers are not their protagonists

I was talking recently with a new writer who was concerned that readers might assume that because a story's protagonist was in some ways similar to the writer, the writer was talking about himself/herself. Many new writers share that concern, so I thought I'd address it here. Four points are key:

1. Many writers create protagonists who are physically similar to them.

At Bouchercon, I've often heard the joke that mystery writers create protagonists who are exactly like them except a little taller, thinner, and in better shape. There's certainly some truth behind the humor, and the practice isn't limited to mystery writers, but it's also far from universally true. More importantly, a character's physical characteristics are usually their least important traits.

2. If you're doing a good job with your fiction, your protagonist is his/her own person.

Characters must be true to themselves. They must behave in ways that make sense for them, react as they would if they were real people, and so on. If every character in a book or story is just the author, then the piece is full of copies of a single person with many names and so will not be very entertaining.

3. You can't stop some readers from believing this.

Don't even try. Lee Child is a rangy, fit-looking, six-foot-five writer. Jack Reacher, the protagonist of his many fine novels, is a superhumanly fit, superhumanly strong, insanely great fighter and marksman who is also six-foot-five. I've listened to fans at Bouchercon confuse the two--while staring at Child. I don't know Child, but I'm pretty darn sure he's not Reacher.

No matter what you say, some readers will make this mistake--which leads me to...

4. Don't worry about this crap.

It's nothing but noise in the system. Tell your story the best you can. Make every character be as realistic a person as you can manage. Build real worlds. Stay consistent with the rules of those worlds. Do everything as well as you can, and ignore the rest. You can control what you write. That's all you can control.

Sure, some parts of you will seep onto every page. That's part of what readers want. There are no new plots, but there are constantly new writers delivering them. Trying to entirely hide yourself in fiction is a pointless, futile exercise, so don't bother.

Do your best. Ignore the rest.


J. Griffin Barber said...

Useful stuff, Mark. Thanks

Mark said...

Thanks, Griffin.


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