Creating a character · How to write a book

Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire

Portrait of Oscar Wilde with Cane

As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)

In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.

Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.

Does it matter?

Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.

If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off – usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.

Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.

Passive main characters

In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.

Unwillingness to alter events

Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.

Events need to matter more

Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.

I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…

Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)

Fast forward.

I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.

faint mmIf you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.

Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.

How to write a character who isn’t like you

Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.

In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.

So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.

Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.



nyn2 2014 smlThere are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated

What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!


28 thoughts on “Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire

  1. An excellent analysis Roz. One to which I need to pay close heed! I do think all characters with which we feel sympathy ( even for their bloody mindedness) are ourselves unleashed. What you seem to be implying is that unleashing needs then to run free, develop muscles, or muscle strain and return changed by the end of the walk-sorry book.

    1. Hi Philippa! You raise an interesting point here about relatability. Certainly, many characters get our empathy because we can see some common ground. Especially when these characters do dumb things, and we think ‘yes, I’m sure I’d react just as badly’. But we need to let our characters grow independently of us, to become themselves – and as you say, to change.

  2. I loved your phrase, ‘Find a key for that new character to sing in’ it sums the whole thing up. We’re still at an early stage with our fiction (I write with my son – not trying to sound royal) but you are absolutely correct that the main character had a lot of me in her. Fortunately my son saw that, so we’ve tried to do as you suggest and use some of me, but create something quite different, much younger, a lot more naive, and much more of a creation with her own way of reacting. I did not find it easy to do, it seemed very wrong, but it did make the next draft much easier to write. Only time will tell if it worked. Thanks for another really interesting post.

    1. Thanks, Lesley! (I laughed at your comment about the pronoun. I’m currently watching The Borgias, so I might have thought you Papal.)
      It’s interesting that you found the process of writing your character difficult. I’ve found some of my characters very tricky to tune into when I write their dialogue – then it suddenly comes in a rush. I think it’s the people who are more unlike me that give me those problems. It can help to have triggers, like music or other books. Good luck and pax vobiscum.

  3. Great piece, and thanks for the shout-out for my post on the subject. This goes more in-depth into the ways to avoid those “Mary Sue” characters that readers find flat or just plain annoying. As an editor, I had to deal with way too many of those “but that’s the way it happened” writers. They seemed to think imagination was a wicked thing, and only staunch adherence to the “facts” would be acceptable…even though they were writing what they called “fiction.”

  4. I’ve heard editors lament about how their clients will say, “But it really happened that way,” or “That’s what he really said.” A tell-tale sign that they missed the writer 101 class about verisimilitude 😛
    Maggie Stiefvater has said that her characters are the answers to the questions she asks in her head. She says that there may be a little piece of her that is the character, but more often it’s about how someone with this set of characteristics, values, or motivations would react to a particular set of circumstances.
    And then there’s Diana Gabaldon, who claims that all of her characters are parts of her. When I was at her session at Surrey International Writers’ Conference last year, she told a humorous anecdote about a fan who told her how much he loved to hate the character of “Black” Jack Randall. She turned to him in all seriousness and informed him, “You know you’re talking to Black Jack right now, don’t you?”
    Great post.

    1. Hi Melanie! Oh, what interesting examples. I love that Diana Gabaldon story. Of course, our characters contain grains of us, but we can change them a lot and still understand them.
      Motivation is a really important part of the equation, and one that can help us get into the mindset of another character.

  5. I often base characters on people I know – amalgams of people I know, that is. But that’s got to be just a starting point. The goal should be to reach a point where you can imagine having an argument with the character. Then you know they’re not you in a Mary Sue mask.

    1. Mr Disvan, I’m with you there. I might take characteristics of people I know, then puzzle about them and play ‘what if’. Inevitably I get asked if I base characters on real-life people, but I don’t. They’d never be a perfect fit anyway – which reinforces the fact that we need to tailor them for the story.
      I like that point about the argument, and disagreeing with their reasons for doing things. That’s great!

  6. -grin- You’ve just described why my very first novel died still-born. And why the second was about inhuman aliens, lol. I hope the third will get the balance right with Miira [MC] “created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story”.

  7. This is all excellent advice. Thinking back, I can’t recall if I ever placed myself fully into a story. Perhaps. These days none of my characters are me, but I believe most have a drop of my DNA, for better or worse, and that drop is in good and bad characters. I have no idea if it matters, but I write fantasy and have always envisioned myself the observer who’s never mentioned in the stories.

    1. Thanks, Christina. I think the genre of story makes no difference. This is working at a deeper level – the characters who are suited to the plot, who the reader will be able to understand and will find interesting. As you say, they will probably have some of our DNA – but it might be spread very thin. Thanks for commenting!

  8. I’m a freelance editor and have found that I need to be very diplomatic when critiquing/assessing manuscripts written by novice writers. Because the writer identifies so closely with the narrator or a character in the book, any criticism of them at all can be taken very personally.

    The psychology of it fascinates me too – how language betrays the author’s allegiances to the narrator or a character. It’s always really obvious to me when a writer has invested a great deal of themselves in a character.

    1. True, Averill. I’ve had the same – and if editors are novelists as well they can at least appreciate it from the other side. I know when I read my early work to the writing group, I felt like I was being stabbed.

  9. Hello again, Roz,

    I’m doing things a little backward. I have now read your post about creating characters that are from you, but are not you. I am still taking baby steps as a writer, so I recognise the need for wish-fulfilment when I am writing and also the tendency to make my main character be me.

    I’ve just finished reading Rörgast, Swedish thriller-author Johan Theorin’s last novel in his quartet set on the island of Öland. (The English translation is not out yet. I read it in Swedish.)

    There is a character in this novel that is so terribly horrible, but you still feel sorry for him. And I have been wondering how Theorin did it. There is an postscript where Johan Theorin lists all the books he had read before writing this part of his novel. I guess that is what you have to do if a character is very different from yourself. Research. You have mentioned this in Nail Your Novel.

    I’m looking for to reading your novels! I can’t use a kindle. I ordered paperbacks.

    1. Hello Anna! Baby steps is definitely the way to do it. To write a comprehensive book about characters I had to cram it into one volume, but you couldn’t possibly absorb and act on all that material in one reading. Just keep coming back to it as you remember something you wanted to check.

      I’ll have to look up that Rorgast (can’t work the umlaut so imagine it’s there) when it comes out in translation. A character who has that kind of impact is definitely worth a look. Thanks for getting my books -and for mentioning them on your blog – big smiles here!

  10. Wonderful, thought-provoking piece with lots of good advice. My main character in my first novel was not me. None of the things he went through as a teen-ager and a young man ever happened to me. However, upon re-reading it, I realized I was projecting my own adolescent hopes, fears, and aspirations onto my character. In my current WIP, the main character is a female so she is definitely not me, but writing the opposite gender presents daunting challenges (particularly for us males!). What an interesting topic. I suppose every writer subconsciously puts a little bit of herself into her main character.

    1. Thanks Chris! How interesting to see you unpick your characters like this. Perhaps you’re illustrating a very interesting truth with your first-novel character – how hopes, fears and dreams are deeper than the events. Resonant truth versus literal truth, perhaps? Fascinating to consider this. And as for your female character – I do hope you blog about the challenges you’ve hinted at. It would be good to see them unpicked.

  11. Reblogged this on Author P.S. Bartlett and commented:
    Although it would be dangerous beyond my comprehension, I wouldn’t mind being Ivory for a day. However, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some of me in her and vise versa. Then again, perhaps I was just living out a fantasy trhopugh my main character…imagine that! 😉

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