The Imperfect Mirror


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

18 comments to The Imperfect Mirror

  • My lead characters are a young female, a young male, and a 30ish male. I didn’t really think about it before, but David’s post made me look at them in a new set of eyes.

    Araceli is a young woman around age 18 who had innocence torn from her, she is currently insane due to that, but she is on the road to recovery and redemption.

    Robere is a young man about the same age who is a jokester who has taken upon himself the duty to care for Araceli. He feels it is his duty to watch over her and will do anything to keep her from further harm. While doing this, he fails to deal with the trauma that he received during the same incident.

    Therin is a priest in his 30’s who has a colorful past but is mentally/emotionally stable. He is a man on a mission to help poeple and try to do some good in a world that has forgotten its god and their love for each other. He is angry that the Temple has forgotten its mission and purpose. He has seen the world and is just trying to leave soemthing positive in the world before he leaves it.

    I say all of this because I can see my life so far within each of these 3 characters. Each one is another spect of my own self. Araceli is the younger me and my innocene lost due to trauma and my own mental “insanity” which I had for years afterward. Robere is my mental protector which built a wall around the pain and trauma which kept me from dealing with it and really made things worse. And Therin is where I am at now… just a working stiff who wants to try to make a little corner of the world a little better before he leaves. I have always felt drawn to Araceli and felt a kinship with her but I did not know why until now.

    Thanks for pointing this out, David. It was quite timely for me and my writing at the moment. I can see my characters more clearly and I think it will help me write them more realiztically.

  • Thanks for the comment, Mark. I’m glad that the post helped you in some way. We all put elements of ourselves in our characters. It’s hard to help really. But as you say, recognizing the patterns can help us make the characters come to life, perhaps in part by keeping us from making them clones of ourselves.

  • sirayn

    Interesting post, David.

    On the surface, I don’t share much with the protagonist of my work in progress. I’m a 20-year-old female student; protagonist J is a 30-something single father of three, whose priority (more like obsession) is to protect his family. The similarity between us isn’t obvious to an outside observer. It’s in a moment we’ve both had.

    First page is a good place for J; his kids are safe and happy, the sun is even shining. Then the antagonist arrives to start toppling the dominoes of conflict. It triggers J’s moment of realisation: his kids could really *die*. It could already be too late. That bad stuff that only happens to other people? It’s about to happen to *him*.
    Makes you lose faith, you know? It’s faith that gets us on the flight believing it’s not going to crash, because come on, that only happens to other people. Until your plane crashes, and you realise how much you’ve been fooling yourself all along – how fragile life is, how things can go wrong in a finger-snap.

    Funny thing is, I wasn’t thinking about plane crashes when I started this novel. It’s the kind of moment that creeps into your mind and makes itself at home.

  • Tom

    Oddly enough (I’ve recently had reason to contemplate this) most of my Protagonists are early/mid-twenties. I seem to like to make them around 25, with the males slightly older than the females. Until I starting writing UF I wrote Fantasy, with a large cast of characters. With UF I wanted a challenge, so wrote 1st person for the first time (ouch) and female MC. If I had known then what I know now what it would be like, I might not have done it. And I’m 50 year old male. So few if any of my characters are like me.

    The few times I have “put myself into the story” it was as a minor character, and I always wrote them so boring. I’m sure that says something about my self image. I think I live vicariously through my characters, having them do all the things, both good and evil, that I can’t or won’t do.

    Did I answer your question, or veer off into left field?

  • Fascinating comment, Sirayn. Makes me want to read the book. And you make a great point: sometimes that things that link us to a character are so subtle that they can’t be seen at first or even second glance. But they’re there, lurking below the surface.

  • I would think it difficult to not have something of us in any character we write. Even the bad guys, which will have some dark part of our psyche in them or be the embodiment of some traumatic even we seen or had happen to us. It’s always our spin, our thoughts, our emotions filtered through whatever lens we happen to be holding up at the time. It can’t be helped. It’s part of the process. It’s our heart and soul out there on the page, however it may be divided up and/or turned on its head. It might be interesting just as an exercise to see if I could write myself as a character. Would I be able to put myself through the wringer like I do to any other character? I expect it would be a very different sort of experience.

  • Tom, you didn’t veer at all. But I’d be interested in delving deeper with your characters along the lines that Sirayn’s comment suggests. While you may bend gender and age, are their other traits or experiences that yous do share with your lead characters, things that make you relate to their experiences more?

    And Jim, I agree with you that all characters have something of ourselves, and I think that’s to be expected. I think that actually putting ourselves into the story would be very difficult. I have always found that the farther from my own experience I go with a character, the more alive he or she becomes. I may link to age issues, as I imply in my post, but in other ways I let the character grow into his or her own person. That growth, for me, is what makes a character come alive; as soon as I begin to model a character after someone, anyone — myself or someone else — I stunt that growth and hurt the character’s development. That may not be tru for everyone, but it certainly has been my experience.

    Thanks to both of you, Tom and Jim, for the commments.

  • My main character isn’t anything like me, but he grew up near Chicago, which I did.

  • Most of my characters are single males. 🙂 The problem is that I have not one family/motherhood gene, and I know better than to try and write children, or a character who is a father/mother of a small child or even a teenager. Adult father-son relationships are a different matter, but I’ve realised that my characters tend to have mothers who are already dead (not unrealistic in historical fiction). Which does not mirror my life; I was 44 when my mother died, and I’ve grown up in an intact core family. Yet when I write families at all, they’re dysfunctional (well, I could claim the ‘relationship’ with my grandmother as reason for that, lol).

    The few more important female characters are a pest to write, except for Ragnhild who has a bit of me in her pragmatic attitude to love: it’s nice for books, but in real life it tends to get in the way and you better stay away from it. Which is the reason why romance subplots are very low key in my books; I can’t write them well.

    I write guy books with lots of action, and if Bernard Cornwell and David Gemmell are any measure, they sell. Though I don’t know what that says about me. 🙂

  • Chris, sometimes that kind of link is far more significant than age, gender, or familial similarities.

    Gabriele I have to admit that my very first reaction to your comment was, “Oh, Gabriele needs to try writing a story with a child as the main POV character!” As I said in one of the comments above, I’ve found that some of my best writing comes when I force myself out of my comfort zone and into the mind of a character who is nothing like me at all. It compels me to be creative, to stretch, and that’s always a very good thing for a writer. Think about it….

  • Lol David, how should I learn anything about children? I have no idea what to do with them, and they can feel that. The few times I tried to play with a kid were nothing but awkward for both parties because I treated them like an adult. As I said, I must lack some gene there. 🙂

    But I do write women, even if I find them more difficult to write than men, despite me being one. No idea why.

  • I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe — just maybe — you were a child at some point in your life. You might start there….. 😉

  • Lol, my memories of that time consist mostly of listening to opera, reading adult books and climbing a few trees. I doubt that’s enough to flesh out a character. 🙂

    Nay, I prefer to write what I want to write. I’m a slow writer who edits a lot (think GRRM with much less experience, lol) and don’t want to spend time on things I know won’t work. Some of my online friends want to read my novels some day, you see. 😉

  • — Lol, my memories of that time consist mostly of listening to opera, reading adult books and climbing a few trees. —

    That sounds like a pretty interesting kid to me! Put the kid into a story and you might surprise yourself.

  • sirayn

    Thanks, David. I fear this novel will join its sad, premature siblings in my trunk of death, but for now it’s clinging to life. 😉

  • David, with few exceptions, my characters are female twenty-somethings. All have a very few, very close friends, trauma in their pasts, and looking for something to fulfill them. Maybe they are a vision of me in my twenties. Heck, maybe they are me now! Whatever they reflect, I always resonate with them and their empty places of the soul.

  • And that’s the key right there, isn’t Faith? Ultimately he have to relate to our characters in a meaningful way. Sometimes we can do that without building in similarities to ourselves; other times even those cosmetic parallels can help. But as long as we can connect with them emotionally, the characters will work.