Characters as Reflections

When you’re an author, there’s a couple questions you always get. One in particular comes from people you know, friends and family: Which character am I?

Somehow, your friends and those close to you assume that you must have mined their lives for character inspirations. And maybe you have. But most authors I know can honestly answer this question: No one.

The reason is pretty simple. I know I, and a lot of my author-friends, definitely use traits and quirks of people we encounter, either on a one-time basis or every day. Maybe it’s that co-worker who whistles at the most inopportune time. Maybe it’s the sales clerk who not only bolluxed up your morning coffee order, but was snarky about it when you (politely) pointed out the mistake.

There are a number of T-shirts and coffee mugs that have variations on the saying: Don’t annoy the writer. I will put you in my next book and kill you.

But really, I don’t lift whole personalities for characters. I can’t point to a character and say, “Oh, that’s my neighbor, John Smith. He really made me mad the other day – blew the leaves from his oak tree all over my rose garden.” Only once have I ever used a murder victim to assuage my own ire. And as I tell my friends: If I ever decide to kill you in a story, you will not recognize yourself.

So yeah, overheard conversation, unique habits, trite sayings: those are things that show up in characters. And, as such, you can say that my characters reflect the people I know.

What about myself? How much of my characters are a reflection of me? Ah, that’s a much more interesting question with a much more interesting answer.

There is a construct in fiction (and I’ll apologize right now to anyone who actually has this name) called a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue character is an idealized reflection of the author. These characters often have no problems, or always solve their problems (and everyone else’s) with ease. They never have bad hair days. They are successful, polished, smart, funny, pretty – whatever.

They are also annoying.

My very first mystery novel, which will probably never see the light of day, had a lot of idealized characters who absolutely reflected me and those around me. The protagonist was who I wanted to be. The husband was my husband (idealized, of course). The sidekick was an old college friend.

You get the point.

While the manuscript had good points, it ultimately went nowhere. I had no passion for it. And I’m convinced that one of the reasons was that the reflections were too clear, too sharp. These were not fictional people. They were fictionalized, polished versions of real people. And that just didn’t work.

I’ve grown since then, and my characters are no longer true reflections of me. However, that’s not to say there isn’t any reflection at all. It’s a bit more like a fun-house mirror. It’s me – but different. Bigger. More over the top. Sally Castle shares my belief that everybody deserves a fair trial under the law, regardless of guilt – and that the prosecution has to work for a conviction. Jim Duncan shares my belief that there are some in society who need to be protected because, for whatever reason, they can’t – and someone needs to stand against the bullies. But these beliefs are a little over the top. Why? Because it’s fiction.

I’ll never be a public defense lawyer. I won’t be a police officer. But at their core, these people are me.

And, while some might not want to admit it, my antagonists are a little bit of me, too. They have my foibles and frailties. My vices. A little selfishness. A little “hold onto what you have at all costs.” But again, magnified. Think the fun-house mirror. The head is bigger, and that zit on your chin is more noticeable. I would never do the things that my antagonists do. But I can relate to them because I’ve had those thoughts.

And really, I hope others feel the same. That’s what I want. I want readers to look at my heroes and say, “Wow, I can’t do those things, but I can relate. That’s me.” I want readers to look at my villains and say, “Wow, that’s horrible and I’d never do that – but man, I can relate.”

That’s a good reflection. That’s when the fiction mirror is at its best.

Now if I can just keep that zit minimized in real life.

What about you – do you see yourself in the fiction you read?

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

8 thoughts on “Characters as Reflections”

  1. Good one, Mary. I’ve heard it said that people assume women are writing autobiography more often than they assume men are. I wonder if people’s experience bears that out. I like Carl Jung’s dream theory, that all the characters in a dream (or novel) are all you. Some aspect of you.

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  2. What a great post. I will sometimes see traits I want to emulate in other authors’ books. It’s interesting. I wonder how many of us were formed in part by the traits we emulated from characters we read.

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  3. Theresa, I think there’s a lot in that. All of these people, and that includes my middle-grade work, are some part of me. I don’t like some of the parts, but they are. And I don’t know why people assume that about women authors. Maybe because women are more public about talking about their lives? Not sure.

    Kait, me too. I think more of us than we realized were formed that way.

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  4. I know I bring up Trixie Belden a lot, but honestly, I think this is the main reason I (and many others) identified so strongly with her. She complains, makes mistakes, barges into situations, suspects and accuses people, is argumentative and stubborn. As a kid (and still now!) I identify more with that than Nancy Drew (who I love for different reasons). I understand the need to be right and to make everybody see things my way, and the embarrassment that comes when I’m not and they don’t (which is rare 🙂

    Great post!

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  5. Oh yes! And I think that character reflections make fiction universal, so that readers can connect.

    Very timely post for me…my book club just discussed one of my books, and the very first question was: “is the mother character your mother?” 🙂

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  6. Diane, someone told me recently that Nancy is the original Mary Sue. Not sure about that, but she sure gets a lot of things right with very little trouble.

    Sue, that’s too funny. So is it? 🙂

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  7. Very interesting post! It parallels nicely with what someone said in a recent conversation: “Your main characters cannot be too big…they have to be able to say what most people wouldn’t say and do what most people wouldn’t do.”

    ps: lol > “If I ever decide to kill you in a story, you will not recognize yourself.”

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  8. Cynthia, yes. A lot of people think “larger than life” means all rowdy and boisterous, but really, it’s the fact that characters do and say what most of us wouldn’t. And readers like that.

    And I’ve used that line more than once. 🙂

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