Monday, November 9, 2009

Characterization by Randy Ingermanson, Part 2

This Manuscript Monday, please welcome back Randy Ingermanson as he continues his series on characterization.

Part Two of Creating: Your Characters Aren't You*
by Randy Ingermanson

Here's another common question I hear: "Is it OK if I write a character that's really just me?"

That depends on what you mean by the word "OK." I doubt very much that you can sue yourself for libel or invasion of privacy if you write a character that is just you. (Again, I'm not a lawyer, so if you sue yourself and somehow win, then don't blame me.)

I see several problems with writing a character that is just you:

* You may not be quite as interesting as your lead character needs to be.
* If you buff up your character to be "you plus a little extra," you may wind up looking egotistical.
* If you add in some traumatic backstory that never happened, your friends and family might get upset.
* What will you do for an encore?

Let's unpack each of these in turn.

Fiction is about characters in conflict. The characters are often a bit larger than life -- in some cases, a LOT larger than life. Let's face it. Although we writers are a talented bunch, most all of us aren't quite as talented as the characters we create. We'd like to be, but we aren't. We can't afford to limit our characters to be no better than we are.

Suppose you write a lead character just like you in every way. Then, halfway through the novel, you realize that he needs to be quite a bit better than you are in some way. Maybe smarter. Maybe faster. Maybe cooler. Whatever. So you tweak him and finish the story and get it published. Now all your friends and family read the story and they see right away that your lead character is intended to be you. But they also see that he's smarter than you are, or faster, or cooler. Naturally, they're going to assume that you think you're smarter, faster, or cooler than you actually are. That makes you look like an egomaniac. Is that what you want?

Suppose you write a lead character just like you in every way. Halfway through the novel, you need to explain why your character is afraid of electricity. You decide to make it plausible by adding in some backstory about being shocked with a cattle prod by an unstable mother. Now you've got problems, because it's going to be "obvious" to everyone that your mother must have tortured you as a kid. If it's not true, your novel could be construed as libel. If it's true, your story could be considered invasion of privacy. Either way, your mother may just take you off her Christmas list.

Typically, publishers are interested in doing more than just one book with you. They invest quite a bit of money in developing an author, and it make take a few books to earn back that investment. Suppose you write a great novel in which your lead character is you. That's wonderful, but who'll play the starring role in your next book? You might be able to do a sequel that again features you as the lead. But can you keep that up forever? If not, then why get started down that road in the first place?

Randy Ingermanson earned a Ph.D. in physics at U.C. Berkeley, which is a wretchedly lame excuse for his friends to have dubbed him a “Mad Genius,” but life isn’t always fair. He is the award-winning author of six novels and one non-fiction book. Randy publishes the world’s largest electronic magazine on the craft of writing fiction, the FREE monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. His ultimate goal is to become Supreme Dictator for Life and First Tiger and to achieve Total World Domination.

* Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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