Never Say Never

July 17, 2015 at 7:54 pm (Uncategorized)


Today, I read an article that suggested writers should “never” base characters on themselves or people they know or, for that matter, insert their own personal experiences into their characters’ lives.

Of course, that’s absurd. For one thing, there’s an extent to which you can’t not do it, at least somewhat. When you’re writing, even with a character wholly of your own creation, you’ll naturally draw upon your own experiences, either directly via autobiographical details or indirectly, through people you’ve known. You may not even consciously realize you’re doing it until much later.

Another and bigger problem, though, is that if you choose to go too far outside your wheelhouse, you better be prepared to do research…lots of it. In general, being a bit too self-referential is a much less damnable offense than writing about something of which you have very little idea and winding up with characters that are little more than stereotypes.

Case in point: I was in a workshop with someone that wrote a piece about an aimless millennial and an exotic dancer that he met online. Unfortunately, the author herself was very conservative and most likely hadn’t known any exotic dancers and so the dancer wound up being little more than the most common (and most untrue) stereotype about exotic dancers. Several of the workshop participants, myself included, complained about this.

In my novel, my protagonist has Borderline Personality Disorder. I have never been diagnosed with the disorder, but back in the old Livejournal days, I had a couple of LJ friends with the diagnosis. I’ve also read a number of research studies and books on the subject as well as two memoirs written by BPD sufferers, Loud in the House of Myself and A Concrete Sky. On edit #8, I still find myself taking a careful eye, making sure that the character shows the criteria of the disorder without perpetuating negative stereotypes or making her into little more than a case study. She also is from New Orleans, where I have never lived, and was in her early teens when Hurricane Katrina hit. This has required multiple visits to New Orleans, reading books about what it was like after the storm and so forth. If you want to write a character whose life, situation or personality is very different from your own then you better be prepared to do a lot of research, otherwise you’re wise to stick to something a bit more self-referential.

Finally, it bears noting that sometimes stuff that’s a bit heavy on the autobiography winds up selling. I’m currently reading Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness 0f Lemon Cake and while I don’t know for certain how much of it is based on her own life, quite a bit of it reads like a memoir at times and yet, it’s a bestseller. Connie May Fowler’s How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, while not my cup of tea, draws heavily from the author’s own life as does Ruth Ozeki’s bestseller, A Tale for the Time Being. Whether or not it’s your thing, it’s worth noting that self-referential stuff sells, probably because it’s so much easier for the author to evoke emotions when digging into their own unresolved issues, feelings and experiences. Hell, even in workshops where I’ve been slammed for work that’s too “genre,” I’ve still received high praise for scenes that were taken directly from my own experience (and they’ve used this to push me towards lit-fic-with-a-twinge-of-magical-realism, but that’s another topic). Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that there’s an audience for it.

In conclusion, I’d say take these kinds of “never” statements with about a pound of salt. Check them out and see if other authors do them and how it’s received when they do. If you don’t want to cut that out of your novel and there’s evidence that you could get away with it and still build up a readership, then go for it. At the end of the day, as long your protagonists and antagonists have a nice blend of good and evil in them, you should be fine.