Guest post from Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
“My book is about, um, me. Is that okay?”
This is the question I get most often when I teach novel-writing classes. And I say go for it, because every novelist is a memoirist and every memoirist is a novelist. Even the most earnest nonfiction writer must of necessity apply a little fiction here and there, if only because she probably wasn’t taking notes on that watershed conversation thirty years ago. By contrast, the novelist can create a completely fictional character, but as often as not writes about himself. Far from being a cop-out, this can add richness to one’s prose.
Consider this experiment. Think of three novels you have enjoyed. Now compare the protagonist with the author.
Suzanne Vale, the main character of Postcards From the Edge, is a movie star with substance abuse issues. Big ones. Much like those of the author, Carrie Fisher. When Fisher discovered she was bipolar, she wrote a sequel, The Best Awful There Is, in which we find Vale struggling with bipolar disorder. By this time Vale has a daughter and an ex-husband. Like Fisher.
A.A. Milne, who wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories, is not a stuffed bear; but his son Christopher Robin had a bear named Edward, which he renamed “Winnie-the-Pooh” after a bear in the London Zoo. He also had Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, and Kanga. The original toys are on display at the New York Public Library. When Christopher Robin was a boy, the Milne family used to vacation at the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest, which served as the inspiration for the illustrations for the books.
Valid reasons exist for making your main character an awful lot like you. The first is believability: You already know how this person walks and talks, and the fact that she is allergic to Belgian endive. This puts you a hundred yards down the track when the starting gun goes off, because it means your main character is already a flesh-and-blood person, not a cardboard cutout.
Furthermore, writing about you helps with job- or avocation-related authenticity. If you are a wedding photographer and so is your book’s hero, you can include all sorts of little details to impress your readers. Of course, you can do that with research, too, and research is a mighty fine thing. But there is no substitute for the depth of knowledge that comes from personal experience.
Finally, starting with yourself is a good way to avoid clichés and plot pitfalls. I remember being in a workshop and critiquing a manuscript whose main character had just done something so catatonically stupid that it wasn’t believable. The leader, a very successful writer and teacher, made this suggestion: If you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, ask yourself, “What would I do?” Then have your character do it. So if you personally would never run back into that zombie-racked mansion that happens to be on fire at the moment, let your character run like hell. It will spare your readers untold eye-roll moments.
I am happy to admit that the protagonist of Wrong Place, Wrong Time looks and acts an awful lot like me. She’s married and has the same number of kids that I do. She’s smart and funny, and she knows how to fight. I can imagine her living next door to me. Or in the same house. My goal was to write a thriller with a familiar, believable heroine at its heart, an ordinary person struggling in an extraordinary situation. Thinking about myself in the story helped a lot.
So you want to write about you? Go for it! Embrace the familiar. You’ll be glad you did.
About the Author
Writer Tilia Klebenov Jacobs has won numerous awards for her fiction and nonfiction work. Her writing has appeared in The Jewish Magazine and anthologies including Phoenix Rising: Collected Papers on Harry Potter (2008, Narrate Conferences Inc.) and The Chalk Circle (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2012), a collection of intercultural essays. Her latest release, Wrong Place, Wrong Time was designated IndieReader Approved and the book won honorable mention for the 2010 Joanna Catherine Scott Novel Excerpt Prize.
For the past 12 years, Jacobs has lived in near Boston, Mass. with her husband, two children and their two standard poodles. In addition to teaching writing at several state prisons in Massachusetts, she has been a guest blogger for Jungle Red Writers, Femmes Fatales and author Terri Giuliano Long’s website. Tilia is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition and will be in San Francisco for the awards ceremony March 30.