by Gayle Bartos-Pool
Okay, let’s get down to the basics… If you happen to be writing a memoir, use as much of yourself as you want. But if you’re writing fiction you might want to rethink how much of YOU you put in your story.
I don’t mean your sense of humor or sarcasm or even little bits of happiness or sadness that has been part of your life, but you can take your PLOT or your CHARACTERS on the wrong path if you aren’t careful. Not that you aren’t the most interesting person in the world… but maybe, just maybe, your beliefs, passions, or politics might be the things that take your great story off the tracks. And remember, in ten years things may change, trends, ideas, even your beliefs. When that happens your story will look dated. But some things never change.
Let me explain.
I have been a huge fan of E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Anna Katharine Green. They wrote a hundred years ago. That’s 1918! Their stories are still readable. Sometimes you’d swear they were written last week. It’s the STORY that withstands the test of time. Stick with it. Don’t head down a road that half your audience might not want to go down with you.
I have watched some of my writer friends on Facebook mention that they will use the recent unpleasantness (AKA: the pandemic, the corona virus, the China virus, the Wuhan virus… whatever you call it) in their work.
Okay. It’s your call.
People used World War II, the Vietnam War, the Depression, -insert disaster here-, in their work. The memorable stories didn’t dwell on the event itself per se. They used it as a backdrop and then showed how their characters’ personalities dealt with the event.
Not that your characters might not do what you would do, but sometimes the story “sounds” like preaching instead of a fascinating character study or a unique story.
I once wrote a scene featuring one of my main characters when she recalled losing one of her beloved dogs. I wrote a rather long sub-story featuring everything I felt at the time of that loss. Funny thing was my character was driving home while thinking of this event. During an edit I came to that scene and realized that particular detour took my character off in another direction – a dead end. It had nothing to do with the main story and it didn’t necessarily enhance her character even though it might have been touching. It showed how hard it was losing that wonderful dog, but it really didn’t fit the spy novel I was writing. I cut it.
I do use people I know as characters, at least a slice here and there. Often I change their name. I do that mostly because I don’t want to embarrass them or anger them – lawsuits, you know. But I never make fools of them… period. And I never use someone I don’t like in a book. Why waste the ink?
I have used all our pets as minor characters in different stories. My wonderful husband, Richard, is definitely the basis of Fred Caulfield in my Gin Caulfield mysteries. I enjoyed using his strong personality so much, he will become a partner in her detective firm in upcoming books. But that is the extent of the similarity. I want Fred to be his own person.
As for myself showing up in the books I write, a little of me is here, a little is there, but I actually like to have my characters be themselves. I might like them because we are compatible, but not identical twins. And I definitely don’t want us to be Siamese twins joined forever, never having a life of our own. That wouldn’t be fair to my characters, after all, they are like one’s own children in a way. You might want to instill some values in them, but you really have to let them be themselves. Think of your friends, you like them because you have something in common, but if you try to change them, I bet you won’t have them as friends anymore.
So I let my characters be themselves, and as almost every writer I know has said: These people take on a personality of their own. If you as a writer just sit back and let them talk, you might just find they have a terrific voice. So shut up and let them do the talking for a while. We’ll get who you are by the story you tell. Trust me. Write on!