One of the top-ten questions I get asked from readers about my writing is how much of me is in my characters. The answer, in case you, too, are curious is: a lot and none at all. My characters come through me and are influenced by my experiences, but they aren’t of me, if that makes any sense. This is where imagination comes into play. In the most important ways, fiction writers like me are conduits for our stories. The muse works through us if we let her, and our minds open to a different realm where ideas come from.
But since we’re conduits, everything that flows through us picks up molecules of our internal plumbing, like water through lead-lined pipes–but hopefully in a good way. How we write a story that the muse has guided us toward is influenced by not only our understanding of how to craft fiction but also by our accumulated experiences that line our synapses like arterial plaque, but, again, hopefully in a good way. And now I’ll stop with the plumbing metaphors.
There are things that I deeply know through direct experience, things both decidedly specific and widely general. I know what it’s like to make music through an instrument and with my voice. I know what it’s like to swim in a pool as well as open water. I know how to design and write software and sit in a cubicle in a large office building. I know what it’s like to be in a relationship for two decades, to cook a lentil stew, to gain and lose thirty pounds. I know what it’s like to be in a small minority in multiple different ways. I know what it’s like to live in Boston and Chicago and (for better or worse) Florida.
These direct experiences can help me deepen and particularize my writing, which can then help readers get caught up in the fictional dream and suspend their real life long enough to involve themselves fully with my creations. So my characters have been swimmers and engineers and cooks and partners and cube dwellers.
But I’ve also met many people and read many, many books, so I’ve accumulated a whole lot of indirect experiences as well. I’ve lived on the moon or in the south during the depression or in an apartment block in Seoul, Korea. I’ve been an elite athlete and chronically ill. I’ve lost a great love and found them again. I’ve been immortal.
My imagination has been engaged while interacting with other writing or told stories, and this has imprinted those experiences in me, planting seeds of curiosity and wonder, which then sprout and grow and eventually bear fruit when the muse comes along and sets up a resonance inside me that I find I need to set down on paper. So my characters have also been visual artists, mothers, widows, business owners, and men.
Since I’m a writer of fiction, my characters are not me, not if I can help it. Sometimes I disagree with them completely and hate what they insist on doing. They find their own way through the obstacles I put in their path, and it is never, not once, how I would have done so myself. This is what is incredibly fulfilling and difficult in writing: getting myself out of the story I’m telling, erasing my desires for the plot and characters and letting them become who they were meant to be, which I imagine to be a pale approximation of what it’s like to be a parent.