Savvy Saturday: Author-Character Relationships

Here’s an interesting question for you readers out there: to what extent does your image of what an author is like as a person come from what his or her characters are like as people? Here’s why I ask: we can all think of Hollywood and stage actors who are viewed as having certain personality traits (e.g. being smart, being funny, being heroic, being obnoxious) based on the roles they play – this is the reason that certain actors are such good endorsers of products, because viewers associate the actor with their larger-than-life character portrayals. (For instance, last year’s Superbowl commercial for Jaguar used this principle to suggest that their cars are driven by super-villains.) In contrast, I almost never hear people talk about how an author “must be” a certain way because he or she writes characters who are that way.

On one level, the conflation of actor/character makes more sense than a conflation of writer/character. After all, actors can only play one character at a time, whereas writers are responsible for all of them at once. But at the same time, the connection between writers and their characters is far more direct and real than that between actors and characters. Actors are hired to play roles written by someone else, for someone else’s story. The good ones make the role “their own,” but any portrayal is still a collaboration between the actor, the script-writer, and the director. Authors, on the other hand, are wholly responsible for the creation, development, and portrayal of every character they write. Many authors like to say that their characters “come to life” and then drag a plot off in whatever direction they choose – but still, characters only have power, life, and “free will” that the author gives them.

More than this, authors’ characters are a reflection of how the author views the world. They have to be. Every human being processes the world through his or her own unique set of experiences, beliefs, and expectations. People may view the world cynically or optimistically; they may read every compliment as purposeful flattery, or be completely blind to people who are manipulating them. One can watch any political debate, for instance, to see people with different beliefs reacting very differently to the same speech. And authors are people too. As much as we would like to be objective recorders and discussants of reality, our writing instead reflects the way we see the world – our deepest beliefs, our biases, and the way we think people truly are.

With these facts in mind, we could argue that characters an author writes should be in some way a true portrayal of what an author is like – and in fact, a truer portrayal of the author than roles are of Hollywood actors. Yet I rarely see this point being made by either readers or by fellow authors. “I am nothing like my characters,” authors like to assert. “They are independent creatures; they are my dreams and fears and chance meetings in the street. They are psychological constructs made flesh; they are no more ‘me’ than you are.” And yet at the same time, we admit that our characters are “our children.” We grow deeply attached to them; we know how they react to stress, how they talk to each other, what pushes their buttons. We sometimes know them better than we know ourselves. Perhaps we don’t want to admit that our characters reflect who we are, or perhaps we are blind to it.

In my own writing, I find that my characters are all a part of who I am, who I want to be, or who I don’t want to be. Though I have never written a fictional “author insertion character” (a supposedly fictional character who says what the author would say and acts how the author would act in any situation), I find that I do have a certain set of beliefs and actions that are more or less conceivable for any of my protagonists to choose. For instance, I have been told – and it was a surprise to me to realize this – that the characters in the works I have written thus far tend to value truth more highly than most. Even villains, a reader noticed, don’t purposefully lie as a matter of course, and a protagonist’s word is their bond, no matter who they are. I hadn’t noticed, but the reader was completely right.

I suppose that writing characters with similar habits or beliefs is a form of self-typecasting, just as some actors try to only play certain types of roles on stage or screen. But I would argue that writing type-casting gives more information about authors than it does to actors. Actors can choose a type of role to play, a type of role they are believable in and good at, and stick with it. There can be (though there does not have to be) a separation between who they are and who they play. In business speak, one could say that there is a distinction between their self and their brand, or professional image. But as authors, what makes us good writers is the fact that our selves are not separated from our books. “Write what you know,” the adage goes, because when you try to write something that you don’t like or that you don’t know, it falls flat. When, therefore, we find similarities across characters, or similarities across protagonists in different books an author writes, I would suggest that those are glimpses into the author’s self that he or she may not even recognize.

So that brings me back to my original question. To what extent do you create a mental image of what an author is like as a person based on his or her characters? To what extent do you think we should? As both an author and a critical reader, I’d love to hear your thoughts.



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