Author-Based Characters

Young writers (‘young’ can mean age or inexperienced) get an idea and think, “It would be so cool if I could do that.” They proceed to daydream, form a story, and might finally attempt to write the story. This results in an author-based character.

An author-based character doesn’t have to be a writer in the story. It doesn’t have to be in present day or do anything the author does. The author could be a stay-at-home mom who writes a spy thriller. The way you can identify an author-based character is the voice of the character, the actions of the character, and the lack of real depth in the character.

Author-based characters come into existence because the author places himself into the situation and writes how he would respond if he ever had run from the CIA, save the world with some new superpower, or travel back in time. This is where all the daydreams and fantasies come to life, and you’re able to do what you could never do in real life.

These characters are often found in fan fiction because the author gets the idea for the story by thinking, “Now, if I could have been in that movie/book, what would I have done? What would happen?” Author-based characters have the tendency to become Mary-Sue or Gary Stu–that is to say the ‘perfect’ characters. To the author, these characters are charming and beautiful, but they’re absolutely annoying and unrealistic to the readers.

Once a writer asked me to read the first novel he ever wrote because he wanted to publish it. I met his female protagonist, and I had to put his book down. Everyone in the story loved that character. They crowded around to reach out to her just to get a brief touch of her. They said she was an angel, and she was described as beautiful.

This, in and of itself, would be all right if the twist had been that on the inside she was dark, but the worst part was this character was absolutely innocent, ignorant, but knew anything about everything. There was nothing wrong with her, nothing different, no shades of gray, or depth. Have you ever met someone who just seemed so perfect that it’s annoying? The same goes for stories.

Needless to say, I couldn’t finish reading that story. I had to give him credit though because it was his first novel, and he was writing a female character. His downfall came in being too careful. He didn’t want to insult his female readers by making his female character unlikable in any way whatsoever, but there is a crime in being too careful. Every character has a conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

But I didn’t mean to write a Mary Sue! What am I supposed to do?” Think back and reconsider why you’re writing the story in the first place. Yes, Mary Sues have their proper place in writing, but they’re never the main character. They’re often used in parody.

If there’s even the slightest chance of me accidentally writing a Mary Sue, I don’t want to write.” That’s your choice, but if you’re a writer, you won’t be able to not write. No one said writing was easy. Characters are only one aspect of writing, and you must master them before you can think about publishing your work.

This is why the Playground Experience is important! During the Playground Experience you can play around with all sorts of characters, tear them apart, piece them back together, find out what makes them tick, and talk with them–argue with them. You’re going to disagree with your characters. They’re going to storm away and slam doors in your head on the way out, but they’ll always come back because you are the only means they have to get their story told. Like us, they want their story known to the world. The Playground Experience is the proper place to experiment. Mary Sues are tolerated in fan fiction because it is an unspoken agreement among fan fic authors and readers that fan fiction is merely a playground to learn the craft.

Writers have the most selfless people in the world because even though they write the story, imagine the characters and the setting, they have no say in what actually happens. They may want something to happen, but in the end, it’s all up to the characters.

Every writer must know and understand their characters and realize they are not their characters, and their characters are not them. This understanding comes with practice, and over the course of many years, you—as the author—will develop how you connect with your characters and how you communicate your characters to the world.

Quick Tip: If you think your character is an author-based character, change the gender of your character. Author-based characters are the same gender as the author, so if you change the gender, you automatically create a distance between that character and you.

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Origin of the Narrative

Last week, we discussed the narrative—the telling part of the story—and I explained how necessary it is. Now we’re going to take a step back and determine its origin—not the literal origin but rather its beginning with each writer. So, where does the narrative begin? Lets consider the general beginnings of a writer.

As a young person, your parents or teachers probably encouraged you to keep a journal. This is usually the first introduction a young person has to writing. It is a ‘safe place’—someplace you can go and tell all your secret thoughts, dreams, desires, fears, and failures without being rejected or discouraged. You begin by recounting your day and how the events unfolded. You capture snippets of conversations you truly had or overheard, and you draw (sometimes literally) pictures of things you saw or imagined. Journal writing is very sacred, and they might never be read by anyone other than yourself all your life.

Then as you get older, you might dabble with poetry—maybe as homework assignments or as mere experimentation for yourself. It’ll likely appear in your journal here and there. The key with poetry is its profound depth of emotion. It is raw—very close to you, and it might be rare for you to share them with anyone. You don’t want people to know that side of you or all those secret thoughts or feelings in those situations. No, you have a persona to present, so you lock them away—howbeit in immortal ink on paper.

After much reading with adventures alongside the books’ characters, you decide to channel your experiences through story form. How do you do it? You choose a storyline that captures your attention—something like a character stumbles upon the truth that fairy tale characters are real and are part of another secret government agency, and everything unravels as the main character (the MC) tries to determine truth from fiction, and so forth. All right, so you have the story, who will be the MC? If you’re a guy, you’d likely decide the MC to be male. After all, you don’t want to mess up writing a female character! The women will likely butcher you if you mess up any representation of them. Women, the same applies for you. You’d likely create a female MC. If you’re young, the MC will likely be around your age—probably a teenager.

So you have the story and the MC, now you have to decide the proper ‘person’ for your story (first person, second person, or third person). Now, up to this point, you’ve only written in your journal with the focus being on all your experiences in life. Naturally that is written in first person, so you’re comfortable with it. That is likely what you will choose as the person for the story, so the story will be primarily from the MC’s point of view (POV).

So what does all this have to do with narrative? It is essential to a story that the narrative be invisible. This means the author must not be noticeable. There are times when I read a story, and I know the author is writing fictional tales of their life. To be honest, I don’t care about the author’s life story (unless I bought the book understanding that is what it is about—in which case, it’d better be non-fiction). I’m an author, and personally I know how boring a writer’s life can be. Who wants to read about someone sitting at a computer writing? There are only so many ways that can be done and redone creatively before it gets boring.

When the author decides to go on an adventure but under the guise of a character, it sticks out. For instance, I mentor young writers all the time, and their first few stories are always about a character of their gender and age carrying out the story. The character has the same personality and habits as their author. This is most evident when the story is set in a different era, and the characters talk with modern dialect when there are no time-travelers.

Author-based characters borderline ‘Mary Sues’—the ‘perfect’ character, who ends up being the most loathed character in the story as well. Why do these characters become ‘Mary Sues’? They’re based on the author, and as a human being, we don’t want to fail. We don’t want to be fooled or make a fool out of ourselves. We don’t want people laughing at us but rather respecting us, and we don’t want to lose. Therefore, the story becomes stilted because it is compromising for a single character, and that is unrealistic. As authors, we strive in making our characters’ lives miserable.

Is it wrong to have a character or narrative based on the author? No. Many books are published where the author is the obvious narrator. The problem? Writers do this when they’re at the beginning stages of their writing and have little experience. This is comfortable for them because of their experience with journal writing and such. When I see a narrator like this in a story, I put the book down. What impresses me more is when the author is completely invisible—when I don’t notice the narrator, and when the characters are so unique and individual that they capture my attention completely and yank me into the story.

“Okay, so how do I make sure I don’t write an author-based narrative?” Since characters and narratives are closely linked together, in order to ensure your narrative is invisible, put distance between your characters and yourself. If you’re a guy writing a story, make your main character (MC) female. If you’re female, then make the MC male. You might wince at this thought, but surprisingly oftentimes men write better female characters than women while women tend to write better male characters. Why? Because in the end, both men and women are people. Down at their core and values, they all have the same struggles, fears, and desires.

When your MC is the opposite gender, suddenly there is a distance. You don’t worry about what people will think of you or if they’ll think you’re the character. Instead, you know that character isn’t you, and you will be more receptive to listen what that character says and show what that character does without fear of you yourself being judged. Once you develop this relationship with your characters, it’s easier to write those characters of your own gender because you have already established the necessary distance between your characters and your own person.

Another way to keep the narrative invisible is to use third person rather than first person because it offers yet another distance. Is it wrong to write first person? No, but it is the person most commonly used by novice writers because of the transition from journal writing to story writing. To become more experienced with writing, you should experiment with all different persons (including second person) until you find which one you are most comfortable with—the one which best shows your story.

When writing, don’t sit there thinking, “Must make my narrative invisible. Must make it invisible. Is it invisible?” Don’t worry about it. Don’t fret over it. All this information is necessary to have in the back of your mind, and when the moment comes, you’ll have it right when you need it. So keep writing. Be mindful of what I said, but don’t fret.