On Writing Autobiographically

During last night’s crime writing class at the City Lit we discussed characterisation. I told the group I was intent on making the protagonist of my latest story as unlike me as possible. Why? Because I’ve realised that, all too often, I write characters as if they were, in fact, me, and whilst Polly Courtney said at last week’s Writers’ & Artists’ conference that most people write their first novel autobiographically (“because they have something to get off their chest”), in my case I fear it might be more to do with laziness than self-expression. I worry that in writing characters who are based, no matter how loosely, on me, I’m closing myself off to a host of far more interesting and complex characters. Not only that, I’m failing to examine their personalities thoroughly enough to be able to fully inhabit them, as I’m assuming they would have the same thoughts and feelings as I would, when this isn’t necessarily (and indeed shouldn’t) be the case.

After a written exercise, wherein we were encouraged to introduce our characters by name (“My name is X…”) and elaborate on how they felt about that name, whether it had any connotations/associations etc., we had a group discussion. One of my fellow students said she didn’t like the character she had written about in the exercise – in fact, more than that, she actively disliked her. The teacher was concerned about this, and said that if a writer is unable to empathise with their protagonist they must at least be able to foster a sense of curiosity about them. For example, what experiences have shaped them into the person they are today (or at the time your novel is set)? Why do they hold certain viewpoints and like or dislike certain things?  

A useful exercise in characterisation, we learned, is to take your main character and write about them both ‘from the inside out’ and ‘from the outside in.’ In other words, write one paragraph ‘as’ them (a letter to a loved one, for example) and then answer a series of questions ‘about’ them (e.g. what is their favourite colour/food, what do they like/dislike etc.). One particularly pertinent and often revealing question is ‘What does he/she dislike most about him/herself,’ as it often gives rise to useful insights into their inner psyche.

The lesson, I suppose, is that if you don’t completely identify with your main character that’s fine, so long as you like them sufficiently to be curious about who they are and what makes them tick. What is certain is that during the creative process you’ll be spending a huge amount of time with this person, so it has to be someone you’re happy to hang out with – or you’ll likely have a pretty miserable time writing it!

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