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.