Yeah, I know, I know… I’ve been told years ago that writers write, they don’t talk about writing.
But you see, I spent some time yesterday discussing with a young author1 about two issues I never considered issues in the first place, when it comes to writing:
- Basing the main character on ourselves
- Taking responsibility for what we write
I was rather surprised by the responses of my counterpart, and in the end I think he was rather annoyed by my position, so I thought I may as well annoy you guys.
Re: basing our protagonists on ourselves
Unless we are the Most Interesting Man in the World (but then, what are we doing writing a book?) this is a sure recipe for trouble.
Granted, we all started as teenagers writing stories in which an idealized version of ourselves saved the day and pulled all the girls or other such fantasies – but we are not teenagers anymore.
Granted, we must be able to feel what our characters feel, and “get in their shoes” so to speak – but this does not mean we have to clone ourselves into the story. Bering a writer – possibly, being a good writer – also means to imagine people different from us, and still be able to get them, and portray them believably.
There is now a tendency to list what a writer can and cannot write – issues of political correctness, cultural appropriation, sexism, various other -isms seem to limit our options.
I should only write about male straight Italian bilingual paleontologists – anything else would be presumption on my part.
I beg to differ – I am in the business of imagination. What I imagine may not please all, and might even offend some, but that’s part of the game.
Which brings me to the second point…
Re: offending people and taking responsibility
The best extant definition of a gentleman is “a man who never gives offence unintentionally”
… the quote is attributed to Oscar Wilde, but it actually appeared on The Saturday Review in 1906, and more or less sums up my position.
When we write we have control over our prose, over our contents, our ideas. To unwittingly offend someone means we have lost sight of our audience and lost control of our writing.
And granted, as Len Deighton once wrote in a disclaimer on one of his books
“the views of the characters do not necessarily reflect those of the author”
Which brings us back to the first point.
If we are writing fiction, we are making things up – and when we make up characters, we make them up to fit the purposes and needs of the story, not as a showcase of our (hypothetical) traits.
The subject of authorial responsibility is of course a huge can of worms, and maybe we’ll save that for another day.
But basically, we stand by what we write. Some may not like it, some may be annoyed, but we are aware of that risk, and we accept to take it.
- my goodness, I feel old – I picture myself with a shock of gray hair and a fat mustache like Mark Twain. ↩