The Unconscious Autobiography

It’s been said, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before, that all characters in a story have a bit of the author in them. Everything you write is colored by your personal preconceptions, observations, experiences, and random thoughts about life and your place in it. In a very real way, who we are leaks into the text whether we want it to or not. I don’t know if I’m the only one who has had this happen, but I find it interesting, and sometimes unsettling, when I realize something about a situation or a character is actually something about myself that I had not realized until I saw it on the page. In a very real way, our characters are our reflections, though sometimes distorted ones. Their experiences and reactions to those experiences are deeply colored by our own.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one could use a piece of fiction as a case study of the author. Authors don’t directly translate themselves onto the page. Most of the time this is an unconscious phenomenon.

In fact, this happens so often and with so little thought that it’s almost impossible not to write what we know. Our subconscious does it for us. When we need a scent, we pull one from memory. When we need to show an emotional reaction, we look at how our own bodies might feel in the same situation. If the character experiences something that we never have, we might find an analogous experience to inform what is on the page. While in most cases writing fiction is writing stories about other people, we cannot help but write about ourselves at the same time.

On some level, writing what you know comes without thinking. But notice the “without thinking” part.

The difficulty comes when we let our own experiences limit what we can and do show in a story. It’s extremely easy to fall back on our own point of view. For example, I find that my characters can sometimes be reserved, even repressed, about their emotions. As a result, I often find it difficult to push the emotional dial up to full for an explosive moment of conflict. That comes from me. I’m a pretty laid back person who doesn’t feel all that comfortable when people around me are really emotional. While I can bring tension, sometimes just bringing tension isn’t enough for a big scene. I’ve seen and heard about other writers who will actually skip hugely important scenes in their books because they themselves have no reference point, or their own beliefs or view of the world make it difficult to face what their characters have to do.

And of course, there’s that ever present failure when an author writes a gross generalization or something just flat out wrong that is deeply insulting to an entire group of people because said author didn’t look outside their own point of view.

For instance, I once knew a real young man whose personality was so over the top that he seemed almost like a caricature. At the time, I thought he’d make a great character in a book, but part of what made him utterly ridiculous was intrinsically bound to an entire group of people who are mostly not ridiculous at all. That character isn’t showing up anywhere in my work as a result. Some might think, to avoid this, one should steer clear of any type of character that is not like them. Sometimes this might be the right call, but limiting oneself to just the familiar often leads to boring characters and lackluster plots. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

My point here is simply to be mindful of what is going into the mixing pot that is your story. Pay attention to those moments when a character trait or bit of setting or what-have-you relies a little too much on what you know. Look for those opportunities when something different can strengthen and deepen what you’re working on.

Who knows, your characters might rub off on you for a change.

3 responses on “The Unconscious Autobiography

  1. Evan

    Great article, Leigh. Specifically, I thought this was a bit eerie:

    “For example, I find that my characters can sometimes be reserved, even repressed, about their emotions. As a result, I often find it difficult to push the emotional dial up to full for an explosive moment of conflict. That comes from me. I’m a pretty laid back person who doesn’t feel all that comfortable when people around me are really emotional.”

    It has recently been pointed out to me by my critique group that I have exactly this same tendency with my characters. That said, I’m not sure that the people who know me really well in the real world would necessarily agree that I myself am emotionally repressed in any fashion, but I think I tend to respect emotionally controlled people a great deal, and hence most of my characters end up occupying a very tight emotional range. Definitely something I will be compensating for in the future.

    1. Leigh Galbreath Post author

      Thank you, Evan.

      That’s a good point. It’s an issue I sometimes have with my heroes. They turn out really boring because I subconsciously think heroes should be perfect. That’s why I tend to steer clear of them and stick to grayer characters. I still haven’t quite figured out how to fix it.

  2. Glynis Jolly

    I’m sure bits and pieces of me are in each character I develop. However, I like basing my characters on people I have known throughout my life so far. Many of the character’s traits are the ones of that person I know or knew and this includes the emotions. True, it’s my perception of those emotions but they don’t necessarily belong to me. Of course, the genre I like to write is more true to life than some genres are. I don’t know if I could do the same with something like a fantasy.

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