It’s no secret that a main character can hold some striking similarities to the author. When I wrote my first book, my family said things like:
- Oh, so the main character is a bit shy, reads books, and is afraid of heights? Hmmmmmm. Sounds like someone I know.
- So, this is basically you, right?
- I remember you said that [particular line of dialogue] to me before!
- This is like fantasy fulfillment, yeah?
At first, I was really resentful about it. My responses:
- I write what I’m familiar with.
- NOOO. I am not a magical witch, I don’t have a little brother, I have no desire to stop an oncoming war, and I have never lived in a village.
- Of course my characters will be similar to me… I’m the one writing them.
- Uh, yeah. Sometimes you say dialogue. That’s how dialogue works.
Why was I so resistant to the idea? In my head, writers were supposed to invent whole beings, create characters from dust, have a cast and crew as varied as the world itself. While some of that is true, authors are limited by their exposure to other humans.
Writing is about empathy: getting into someone else’s head and figuring out what they desire and fear, want and hate. Humans (as far as I know) only have strict access to their own heads. So our outlook on life, our views of others, and our perception of emotions and motivations are seen through an glass encasement. On some level, we know other humans live in their own glass cases, but we can’t see them as well as we can see ourselves.
To that end, yes. Writing a character takes a little bit of yourself and a lot of what we speculate about others. On top of that, the first time we create a character, it’s easier to pull from what we know about how we think of ourselves.
A main character is not the same thing as an author. We don’t live in that world, and we don’t experience those things. But it would be naive to say (and trust me, I’ve said it) that our characters aren’t us. They are. In small or big portions, the characters we create represent some part of us. That’s a beautiful and frankly terrifying truth, because we take pieces of ourselves, pieces of what we love and hate, and spread them out on paper for the viewing, critique, and enjoyment of others.
Maybe we’re trying to understand ourselves when we write about others. We imagine other brains and bodies and lives as complexly as we can in some essential hope that readers—other humans—will understand us in the same way we try to understand them.