We have a friend in Australia, a colleague of Nancy’s who studies biology and is particularly interested in the metabolism of birds. He and his wife are great people — we think the world of them. But I bring him up today because I was thinking about a conversation we had with them over wine and cheese one evening during our year Down Under. He was reflecting on the fact that as a young man, just starting out in biology, he had studied the metabolism of sexuality in birds and ways in which other biological processes interact with sexual behavior. This was interesting to me because this man is now in his fifties and he is currently studying in the metabolic changes in birds brought on by aging.
But enough about him: Let’s talk about me. In my first series, which I started writing in my late twenties but first conceived when I was younger — late teens, early twenties — my hero was a young man. In the first book of the series he was 18. By the third book he was in his late twenties, and he and his wife were parents of a young girl. Coincidently (yeah, right) Nancy and I were, by this time, the proud parents of our first girl. With the Forelands series, my hero was an older man, not yet middle-aged, but mature, tempered by painful lessons he had learned in his youth. I started this series in my mid-thirties. Now I’m finishing up the first book of my newest project, and my lead character is in his forties. He’s not as physically strong or capable as he used to be, and he has as much of his life to look back on (much of it with regret) as he does to look forward to. Now, while I have few regrets as I look back on the first half of my life, I am beginning to feel the effects of middle-age creeping into my day-to-day life. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
There is a writing syndrome known as the “Mary-Sue” (or “Gary-Stu”) character. Usually this refers to a character who is either too perfect or so imperfect as to be ridiculous. The Mary-Sue character is often thought of as being a fantasy wish-fulfillment character for authors, someone through whom authors play out their own real-life emotional issues. Basically, with a Mary-Sue character you are writing the fictional equivalent of yourself into the story — in some cases this manifests as the flawless hero or heroine; at other times, when self-image is a problem, the Mary-Sue character is utterly flawed. I bring this up to distinguish what I believe I’m doing with my aging lead characters from this syndrome. My characters are not mirror images of myself, not even distorted mirror images. Nor are they flawless (or completely flawed) people. They are, I believe, pretty well-rounded: flawed, but not unredeemably so.
That said, however, I do think there’s a reason why my lead characters are aging with me, just as I think there’s a reason my scientist friend in Australia studied sexuality twenty-five years ago, but studies aging today. Part of it is experience — that old adage again: we write what we know. I don’t think I could have written as convincing a forty year-old when I was starting out as I can now. I hadn’t lived it, I didn’t have time’s scars on my body or my psyche. But perhaps more to the point, I was interested then in people that age. I found young people more compelling. I was more interested in writing about a romance between young lovers. I wanted to explore the dynamics of new love, of grappling with that decision young people make to spend the rest of their lives together. I wanted to write about the starting of a family.
At this stage of my life, those issues don’t interest me as much. My new lead character was in love once. He was ready to marry, he was in the verge of beginning what he hoped would be a long and prosperous career, he planned to be a father. And then he lost it all. He went to prison for more than a decade. (Hmmm, was I perhaps reflecting on my graduate school career when I came up with that little tidbit…?) Now he’s rebuilding his life, pursuing a complicated romance with a woman closer to his age, coming to grips with what he’s lost, trying to forge a friendship with the children (by another man) of the woman he once loved. Not at all like the life I’m living, but fascinating issues for a man of my age. I love this character, but more to the point, I think that if I was writing a book about this same man in his happy youth I’d find him terribly boring.
Yes, we write what we know. But more, we write what we want to explore; we write what fascinates us, what compells us to ask those all important “what if?” questions. This doesn’t mean that all of our characters have to be our age or our gender. In part, I loved writing the Blood of the Southlands books because one of my lead characters was an old man, very near the end of his life. His issues fascinated me, too, and I think he’s one of the strongest characters I’ve ever written. Still, I have no doubt that I could have written him even better than I did if I’d waited another twenty or thirty years. Getting into the heads of characters who are nothing like us is one of the great challenges and great joys of writing. That lead character though, that bright sun around whom all else in the book or series orbits — that’s the one we have to get just right. And so maybe that’s the one who carries a bit more of me than the others. That might not always mean that he or she is my age, but I would guess that there will always be something about my lead characters to which I can relate. Maybe in the future one will be an artist of some sort. Maybe one will have lost his or her parents in quick succession, as I did. Maybe one will be uncommonly intelligent, with movie-star good looks and the writing talent of a God. Oh, wait — that would be that Mary-Sue thing slipping in again….
What about you? What do you have in common with your lead character? What about him or her is different from you? And why do you think you chose those similarities and differences?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://magicalwords.net http://www.DavidBCoe.com