The Anti-Biographical Novel
When I was deep into my first draft of The Moon Always Rising and still struggling to find my protagonist, my writing workshop leader, John Hough, suggested I try casting it in the first person. He thought the immediacy of that approach, and going into my character’s mind, might make it easier for me to reach the emotions of Els Gordon, the woman I’d been creating. My other characters were taking on life easily (and talking to me in my head) but Els was elusive. I resisted John’s advice, but not because it would mean a lot of work. I was scared. Readers of a debut novel written in the first person, I reasoned (stupidly, perhaps), would assume it was heavily autobiographical. My family belonged to the “don’t air dirty laundry” school. And because I’ve had a long and reasonably prominent career, touching hundreds of lives but needing to preserve professional distance and integrity, I thought writing in the first person would lead to uncomfortable vulnerability. People would imagine they “knew” things about me.
So what did I do? I wrote a character that was assiduously NOT ME. For starters, Els is tall, red haired and gray-blue eyed. I made her athletic. I made her a Scot who grows up in an ancient estate in the Highlands and starts out wealthy and privileged. I made her an only child and gave her a reticent father. Most importantly, I made her emotionally crippled because her mother abandons her at the age of two, fleeing Scotland for her native Italy for reasons the family won’t discuss. I, on the other hand, am middling short, have silver hair and brown eyes, am a little klutzy, and am one of five kids who grew up in a loving middle class family in Connecticut. Sometime I’ll write about my father, who loved so hard he was often teary. And my mother continued her devoted connection to me until her death at almost 98.
Problem was, in trying to hide myself, I lost my character.
The distance I created from my NOT ME character proved challenging to bridge. In order to find Els, I had to locate emotional resonance from my own experiences, even if they weren’t exactly what I put Els through. Her fiance dies. My high school boyfriend perished in Vietnam (though long after he dumped me). She sacrifices love for ambition. I emphasized career over marriage for long enough to lose my chance at motherhood. The list of useful similarities goes on. She encounters sexual harassment at work and shuts up about it until she can’t any longer. She repots herself on an island and has to deploy her assets to make a living. She resumes a long-sidelined creative endeavor—for her it’s painting, for me writing fiction—and for both of us that opens up a way of seeing.
They say, write what you know. I’d add, write who you are, with whatever boundaries you need.
I adopted a strict close third person point of view (POV), putting blinders on my writing so that the reader sees only what my protagonist sees and knows only what she knows. If Els didn’t experience it, think it, or hear it from someone else, it’s not in my book. That helped me get inside her head and heart and imagine her thoughts and reactions based on WHO SHE IS, not who I am. As a bonus, strict POV control was, for me, a helpful device for revealing the other characters based only on their words and actions because I’d denied myself the luxury of writing their thoughts.
What I learned is that writing relatable characters is an act of compassion.
As writers, I believe we owe our characters compassion. How else will readers find them sympathetic, even if they’re not likeable? Els is frequently unlikeable, even to herself. Underneath her prickly exterior, she’s as desperate for love and belonging as any of us. I was as reluctant to let readers in as Els was to open herself to love and possibility again. Acknowledging how she and I are alike at the level of our most human needs is what did the trick.
When people say all fiction is partly autobiographical, I now better understand what they mean. As writers, we mine our experience, not for the experience itself, perhaps, but for the emotion it triggered. My actor friends learn this lesson early—go to a place where they were sad or furious to generate an authentic emotion for a tearful or enraged performance. This is so elementary as a writing truism it’s embarrassing that I needed years of practice to embrace it.
What about you? Do you also struggle with what feels like uncomfortable self-revelation? If you write characters that are very different from yourself, how do you find them and make them real to you and your readers?