I did a radio interview today over the phone and I’m hoping I don’t have to listen to it because no matter how clever and witty I think that I’m being during the interview, I always find that I sound pretty dorky when I listen to it afterwards.
But one of the questions was a pretty good one, and one that I don’t get all that often. It was ‘How can you create characters who aren’t autobiographical?’
Gosh, I hate questions that make me have to think on a dime! I’m a writer because it usually takes me three to four passes before I come up with something brilliant to say. Unfortunately, with a radio interview you’ve got one shot and one shot only.
My brilliant answer was, “My main character is always autobiographical.” After a short pause, I went on to explain in a muddle of words that I’m still not convinced made a lot of sense. But here, with all the time in the world to put down my thoughts, I’ll have a better chance of explaining.
It’s a given that most authors write what they know. Besides being a writer, I’m a wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister, granddaughter—just like the majority of my readers. It’s my real world and what I know best. My everyday life is very similar to that of most of my readers, as are the emotions experienced over great joy, loss, grief, homecomings, and departures. When I write emotional scenes involving my protagonist, I’m giving her the emotions I’ve felt in real life; the same emotions that will resonate with my readers. We might not have shared the same actions in life, but we’ve most likely shared the same reactions.
But sometimes I’m a little more blatant with the ‘borrowing’ of real life. In my November, 2008/9 books (The House on Tradd Street and The Girl on Legare Street) my protagonist, Melanie Middleton, is anal-retentive and loves the musical group ABBA. I’m not admitting to anything, but certain friends who know me well have told me that of all my characters, she’s the most like me. I’m quite sure I don’t know what they’re talking about.
In my latest release, The Lost Hours, the protagonist, Piper Mills regrets not having asked her grandmother for her stories before her grandmother succumbed to Alzheimer’s. My own grandmother (to whom the book is dedicated) suffers with Alzheimer’s, and although I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories, I imagined while writing the book the devastation I would have felt if I hadn’t taken the time to listen. Again, it’s the shared emotion with my readers that makes this particular character not only autobiographical, but also authentic.
Sometimes, the autobiographical aspect of a character is completely unintentional. A writer friend recently pointed out to me that in every single one of my books, the protagonist is in some way at odds with her mother and/or her mother is dead. Since my own mother and I have always had a difficult relationship, this makes sense—but it was just incredible for me to learn that I had done the same thing in so many books yet never noticed it!
When I’m not feeling autobiographical, I like to pretend that I have the divine hand of Providence and I allow myself to create better worlds than the one in which I reside. As a child growing up, I always, always wanted a sister and ended up with three brothers instead. In retaliation, I write a lot of sister books, and in the one book where my character has a brother (Pieces of the Heart), he’s dead before the first chapter starts. Hey, it’s my world and I can do whatever I want!
Same goes with naming characters. My husband picked the names of both our children and our dog. So with every book, I go through the list of children’s names I wanted and just go to town naming all those characters who will people my book and I don’t have to get anybody’s approval.
I even find that sometimes my protagonist is my alter-ego—the person I _wish_ I could be because they’re stronger, smarter, more resilient. Skinnier. Yeah, even that. I have one protagonist (The House on Tradd Street and The Girl on Legare Street) who has an enormous sweet tooth and has donuts for breakfast every morning, but never gains a pound. She’s definitely not autobiographical, but I definitely wish that she were! But that’s the joy of writing, and in Karen’s world, I get to pick the reality.