Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Do You Want to Know a Secret? Do You Promise Not to Tell?

by Riley Redgate

Back when I took acting classes, one character-building activity in particular stuck with me: the Secret. The goal of the Secret was simple and self-explanatory: Come up with a secret for your character, something the character never says onstage or even references subtly. Tell no one what the secret is. Harbor the secret. Supposedly, this helps breathe inner life into your performance.

But I always felt like the point of the Secret wasn't to give the character inner life, but to create a semantic attachment between actor and character. Similarly, what I love about creating characters' backgrounds in writing is that it makes me feel like the character and I are getting to know each other. Yeah, a significant portion of what I craft for my characters never makes it "onscreen"—but since such a vital portion of writing consists of nailing a character's voice, every little bit I can do to connect to them seems to help. It's not that I'm furthering the character so much as furthering my ability to communicate who he/she is.

Which brings me to the larger issue: What happens when your character's Secret is actually your Secret? And how much of an author's life seeps into the creation of a novel? I know some writers who base entire characters off people they know in real life. (I have been known to borrow a characteristic here and there, but I've never had a specific friend/family-member/enemy/what-have-you from my personal life in mind when I've come up with characters.) Of course, there are "easter eggs" lying around here and there—something in a line of dialogue will be a reference to a thought I had while driving to school, or there'll be some loosely adapted translation from a foreign language for a character's name. Nothing too major, though.

Interestingly enough, a fellow writer once told me about one of her easter eggs before I read her novel—and that knowledge ended up ruining the character for me, because every time I read one of his lines, I was like, "THIS DUDE IS BASED ON SOMEONE I KNOW." It was sort of uncomfortable. And invasive-feeling.

However, when another friend told me one of his character's secrets—a secret relevant only to the character, nothing drawn from my friend's real life—it didn't bother me at all. I felt like it maintained the illusion, and actually assisted it, instead of destroying it. It seemed like he'd applied the acting activity, and it'd worked.

I started to wonder, though—if my first friend hadn't told me a thing, would I even have noticed? Would I have enjoyed reading that character just as much as the character in Novel #2? Many writers look down on blatant authorial self-insertion, but as long as there's that barrier between author and reader, does it really matter? Technically, doesn't all writing (and acting, for that matter) involve a degree of self-insertion, assuming we're writing (or acting) from a place of sympathy? Dark and scary questions indeed.

Of course, the question would eventually become this: if the author relies on self-insertion, will he/she ever be able to write an entirely different main character, a character who isn't him/herself? And heck, I've got to admit, when an author has an obscenely long series of books, I sort of start to wonder if they've forgotten how to write in any other character's voice.

Do you think that self-insertion, if unknown to the reader, is acceptable? Do you draw directly from real-life experiences (or people) when you write? Are your characters' secrets their own, or yours?

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


JeffO said...

If the author can self-insert (that sounds so strange) and still manage to be truthful and write a 3-dimensional character, then I don't think it matters that much. Who will know, really?

As for the other questions, I have based characters on real people, though I will not tell them that, and I have drawn from real experiences, though I have taken considerable liberties with those experiences. No flat-out retelling of personal stories for me.

Sophie Perinot said...

I think it is virtually IMPOSSIBLE not to insert parts of ourselves and those around us into our characters even when -- as in my case -- our characters have been dead 700 years.

The truth is we "write what we know." Even when we are ostensibly researching events, characteristics and settings until we know them backwards and forwards and can convincingly portray them we draw from life experiences in understanding that new material. That's how humans cope with things and digest information -- by comparing it to their own experience of life.

Even in cases where you are SURE you are NOT infusing a character with elements of someone you know you can BET a half a dozen people will come up to you after publication and say "you are so X" or "Henry reminded me of Y."

Jean Oram said...

Sometimes I find myself imagining the spirit of a real person when creating a new character in order to get the energy right. That sounds really out there. Let me put it another way. I imagine it is said person in the scene as I develop the mannerisms, reactions, and voice of a character. I only do this with people I am not close to and while it sounds like I am writing that person, they could never be identified as the parts I am taking are small tidbits that inspire the fictional character. Did that make sense? So nothing blatant--just inspiration.

E.B. Black said...

I think it's fine to self-insert as long as it's not done in every single novel. If all your main characters have the same personality, readers tend to assume you're inserting yourself into the novel every time.

And I always draw at least a little from real life experience. Sometimes it makes me feel terrible though. I've seen people go through some traumatic experiences and chosen before to write about a character going through something similar and get scared that this will offend them. After all, I'm borrowing some of what I learned from them about the experience.

I'll tell you something funny though. I had a beta reader tell me once: "No man talks like that" in a romantic scene when I actually wrote word for word something my boyfriend told me one time. XD

Jemi Fraser said...

I haven't based any characters on real people either. I think a few traits or tidbits might show up once in a while, but no complete people. :)

Riley Redgate said...

Jeff - That's definitely how I feel. As long as no one will ever find out, it seems sort of irrelevant whether an author's borrowing from real life. And I wonder how one would phrase that, anyway? "Hey, Mom, I based this book character off you! Surprise!" o_O Bit awkward, that.

Sophie - Yep. Definitely saw similarities to people from my real life in your novel. ;) I wonder, if an author ever DID manage to divorce him/herself from any personal experience whatsoever, would any of the characters in the novel be sympathetic at all?

Jean - ah, that's very cool! I'll have to try that sometime. I usually have to have a good sense of the character's personality on a holistic level (otherwise they're never cohesive), so imagining traits all wrapped up in a single person seems like an excellent approach.

E.B. - Ahahha! Truth is stranger than fiction and all that, I suppose. XD Half the stuff i say, I think to myself, "Dude, if someone put that in dialogue it would look so unnatural." I talk like an alien...

Jemi - maybe someday you'll meet one of the characters you've created... what a turn-up that would be. ;) INCEPTION!

petemorin said...

Dang I typed out a wicked good comment and it got eaten by the internet monster.