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May 17, 2018

How Much of Yourself Is in Your Writing?

Looking through a keyhole with text: What Do Our Stories Reveal about Us?

We’ve probably heard this question before: How much of yourself is in your writing?

Maybe we heard an author interview asking that question. Maybe we read an article about it. Or maybe we even have our answer in our FAQs on our website.

Some writers answer from the perspective of their characters: What do they have in common with their characters? Are the characters based on themselves in any way?

But in truth, this question of how much of ourselves comes out in our writing can dig much deeper into who we are than just the superficial, with details like our characters’ ages, genders, or backgrounds. Let’s take a look…

The Obvious: Our Characters and Us

The first assumption of where pieces of ourselves might come out in our writing usually focuses on our characters. We’re people, not plot twists, so it makes sense to jump to the people in our stories when looking for similarities.

Some fan fiction stories have been known to take that idea to the extreme with “Mary Sue” characters, where the term originated to describe an author self-insertion character. However, for most stories outside of the fanfic world (and even for a fair number of stories in the fanfic world), authors usually avoid self-insertion.

How do our stories and characters reflect who we are? Click To TweetMost of us take joy in creating characters that feel as real as our best friends from nothing but our imagination. And many of us want the freedom to not be directly associated with everything our characters (especially our villains) say and do.

That said, it’s almost impossible to have nothing in common with our characters, simply because we each have so many facets to who we are. It would be difficult to ensure all of our characters avoid any similarity to us—not because we couldn’t stretch our imagination that far, but because there would be too many aspects to avoid.

Avoiding Similarities Would Be Limiting

My options of characters to write about would be very limited if I tried to avoid any that shared my…:

  • gender
  • age
  • hair/eye color
  • stature (height, weight, body style)
  • quirks/pet peeves
  • race/ethnicity/heritage
  • neurotypical vs. neurodivergent traits
  • mental and physical status/abilities
  • social class
  • sexual orientation
  • background/experiences (kinda vague, huh?)
  • choices/behavior (still vague)
  • strengths/positive traits
  • weaknesses/flaws
  • fears/triggers/attitudes
  • beliefs/values/morals
  • hopes/dreams/goals

…and anything else that I can’t think of off the top of my head right now.

As I said, it’d be near impossible—or at least really odd—for every one of my characters to not share any of those traits with me. Avoiding my brown eyes alone would mess up the statistics of a normal population. *smile*

Obviously, I’m not going to write only blond, blue-eyed male characters—and that’s just avoiding the superficial aspects.

I get heebie-jeebies about some bugs (have you ever seen a several-foot-long millipede in person? with all those moving legs? *shiver*), I’ve been poor in my life, I’m opinionated, I hope for a better future, etc. Every character I write—even the villains—probably share something in common with me.

Another Facet of Ourselves: Writing as Therapy?

It’s almost a stereotypical joke that writers work through issues in their stories. A straight “written for therapy” book probably wouldn’t be very entertaining, but there are plenty of ways we can use our stories to explore our problems without sacrificing the story itself.

An author might…:

  • get “revenge” on an ex by writing their protagonist getting the best of their ex,
  • include situations similar to what they’ve unsuccessfully faced to allow their protagonist a second chance in their place, or
  • write a protagonist who speaks and acts as they wish they had the courage to do, etc.

(*cough* We might even name a minor character after an agent who gave us a painful rejection. Just as another for example… *smile*)

Just as our readers often find inspiration in our stories, we can find inspiration in our efforts as well. Whether we recognize them as self-therapy attempts or not, these aspects of our story come from us and our experiences, and we can feel a sense of satisfaction from rewriting our history.

The Biggest Facet of All: Our Worldview

As I’ve written about before, our worldview colors almost everything about our stories:

“Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is so deeply a part of us that we might not consciously recognize it as a construct of our mind.

Despite us not always being consciously aware of those beliefs, more often than not, our stories will reflect that worldview. If we believe people are basically good at their core, we’re more likely to write stories that include elements of redemption or sacrifice. If we believe people are basically selfish at their core, we’re more likely to write stories that include elements of society breaking down in some way.

We might not even be able to write against our worldview. Above, I had a hard time putting myself into the shoes of the “people are selfish” believers to guess what elements their stories might reflect. A whole story would be even more difficult.

That’s not to say we can’t write characters with opposite beliefs (even with our protagonist), but on the story level—the overall message we want readers to take away—we might not be able to write a story with an opposite belief at the core. If we believe people are good, we’d probably be hard pressed to write a story where the point was to “prove” that people are selfish.”

Other Ways We Exist within Our Stories

Beyond seeing pieces of ourselves in our characters, therapeutic aspects, and worldview, who we are is reflected in other elements of our stories as well:

  • If our story is set on Earth, we might be familiar with the settings. Our perception of the place, what we noticed, can be reflected in the story.
  • Plot events might be echoes from our lives. Maybe just like our character, we’ve been betrayed by a friend, etc.
  • The choices our characters face might be reenactments of choices we’ve faced. Like the therapy aspect, our characters might decide differently than we did, perhaps exploring how we wish things had worked out for us.
  • A line or two of dialogue might be inspired from our lives. Maybe we overheard the line, said it ourselves, or thought of a good comeback when it was too late to say it in real life.
  • A character’s emotional journey or what they learn might be similar to what we’ve gone through. The review of our growth might help the “lesson” stick deeper in our head or celebrate how we’ve changed or improved.
  • Like our worldview, our story’s themes might be similar to our “motto for life.” The attitude we want to have toward our own life, such as “appreciate what we have,” could come out in our themes.
  • How we describe the emotions our characters experience might come from our memories. Or the way we ensure the emotions of our story resonate with authenticity might come from our experiences.
  • Our sense of humor can come out in what we emphasize to make funny. Similarly, our author voice comes from what sounds natural to us, maybe as an amped-up version of our thoughts and personality.

We Exist within Our Stories in Many Ways

In other words, even beyond our characters, it’s impossible to write a story that doesn’t come from the inner depths of who we are. Maybe we’re aware of how our facets feed into our story, and maybe we’re not, but we can’t keep ourselves from influencing any part of it. (Which is another reason that we can’t ignore our biases.)

How much of us is in our stories? We might be surprised... Click To TweetOnce we know that who we are touches every part of our story, we can use that information. Maybe we’re trying too hard to have our heroine “win” in a confrontation because that’s what feels good to us, but it might not fit the story. If we’re aware of why we’re pushing for that outcome so hard, we’ll instead be able to concentrate on doing what’s right for the story.

We can use our knowledge to ignore our therapeutic urges when they’re a bad fit. We can embrace the similarities to dig deeper into our characters (and ourselves). We can fix aspects that feel broken. In short, if we’re aware of how we’re influencing our story, we can improve our stories. *smile*

How much of yourself are you aware of putting into your story? Does this post point out some other ways your story might reflect who you are? Do you try to fight putting in aspects of yourself? Or do you embrace it? Which do you think authors should try to do?

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Maryanne

When I was working with an editor on a YA fantasy (unpublished) novel, one of her comments was, “Were you aware you have three wicked step-mothers in this book?” Yikes! Mommy issues much? In that same novel, I did not realize until deep into edits that I had given physical shape to the theme of “not being what you seem” in two of the main settings I had created. So, yeah, my books are definitely therapeutic, both for my own emotional development and for my characters’. Great post, Jami!

Stephanie

I’m bouncing between projects right now; three, to be exact. It almost feels like my heroines are…different versions of me. Like how you act differently around your close friends versus your boss or your kid’s teacher. Obviously my characters have a lot of traits that I don’t, but it’s interesting to see what “part of me” shows up where. Also, so far, they are all set in the South. I’d have an easier time making up my own universe than writing about living in New York or LA!

Sieran Lane

LOL, ever since I realized I was trans and queer, all of my protagonists have been queer and/ or trans, so there’s definitely a reflection of the author there. Most of my trans characters are on the masculine spectrum, and I’m a transmasc person myself. Many are on the asexual and/ or aromantic spectra, as I am too.

Oh, I find that many plot events, whether minor or major, external or internal, are recognizable in my own life. I’m not bothered by this, though, as it only makes my story more soothing and satisfying for me to read. My stories are like music specially composed for my soul, tailor-made melodies. When I reread my stories, I feel like they are speaking directly to my heart. It’s an awesome and very comforting feeling.

In fact, I love the phenomenon of innocently pantsing something, and then suddenly discovering new things about myself that I never knew before.

Tonya

ohman… I’m intentionally using some names from a recent IRL betrayal in my current WIP. And I’m telling you now, those characters will DIE. Painfully. (I hope – LOL) This is the first time, in fact, that I’ve started a new story with a known, specific individual as an antagonist, and it’s very strange to me not to yet have a clear handle on the couple at the heart of the story. {smile}

Glynis Jolly

I can only write a story from my perspective. There isn’t any way I can write it from someone else’s for the simple fact that I am not that person and have not had his or her experiences. I can just hope that the reader of what I write has the capability to understand my perspective.

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Katy
Katy

I recently came to the realization that the abuse my MC faces and the power struggle she is constantly going through with everyone around her is reflective of after my mother and I left my father just before I started high school. The academics of my school were intense because it was one of the best schools in the state, and that combined with moving away from all I had ever known made me feel powerless and like I had entirely lost control. Having to write my main character losing control in a similar way and then slowly gain it back and eventually overpower her abuser has been extremely fulfilling for me as a person, even though our specific circumstances are vastly different.

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