I, Thou

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I've had a conspiracy of thoughts.  I was having a conversation with my husband about my relationship with my characters in Gingerune, and not twelve hours later Anne Elisabeth posted a very informative piece on infusing your characters with a part of yourself and still avoiding the pit-fall of the Mary Sue-type.
If you are not acquainted with Mary Sues in literature, they are self-inserts of the author, twisting the author into how he or she fantasizes himself or herself to be perceived: outrageously sexy, inexplicably endowed with convenient martial skills, can tell you the last digit of pi, probably possesses superpowers, half the cast hates the character and the other half is falling over each other in an attempt to win his or her affection.
I'm not really here to talk about Mary Sues today; Anne Elisabeth did an excellent job with that already.  But my problem was tangential to the whole issue of having a part of yourself wrapped up in your characters.  I don't know if any of you have reached this stage, or if it even is a stage, but I hope that you will find this helpful all the same.

There is always a degree of myself in my characters - even in my male characters.  While I always try to push outside of myself (or retard myself) to fit the place, age, and personality of my character, I can see how my own position, age, and personality affect the development of my character.  Adamant portrayed my shyness, naivete, and sheltered misunderstanding of the world.  It took a lot of development to bring out the harder core of the girl as I had to work through layers of my own idealistic attitudes which I found entrenched in my character's personality.  Margaret was almost directly opposite: all sharp edges on the outside, endowed with my cynicism, my quixotic tendencies, my stubbornness - all of the martial features which, in the right context, are acceptable and can be an excellent defense against the world, but once they become habit they are prone to hurt anyone around you.  Human beings are extremely complex, and I can explore such diametrically opposed personality traits which I have in myself by putting them in two separate characters.

But Ginger is different.  You have already heard me discuss how very different Ginger and I are.  Not only are our life experiences vastly different, our personalities are too.  This is one reason why the 500-plunk has been such a life-saver: writing Ginger is hard.  It is an uphill battle the whole way, against my own nature, against my own natural thought processes.  She has parts of me for sure, but those parts are small and far between.

Like any writer, when I began having difficulty writing Ginger I began to doubt my skills.  It is the instantaneous reaction of the writer: doubt.  Doubt, doubt, doubt, some despair, doubt.  All of my other characters came so relatively easily!  From my earliest writings (when I didn't even try to veil that I was self-inserting into wildly fun and fantastic worlds) to the sound footings of The Shadow Things, I could relate to my characters.  Maybe we weren't all that alike - Indi, for instance, while very relateable to me, is a better man than I am, Gunga Din - but somehow we always clicked.  But while Ginger makes sense and is a great character to write and explore, I do not feel as though I am walking around in her body.  And for a long time that has worried me.

But the fact is, Ginger is not me.  None of our characters should ever be us, and Ginger bears that truth out in unavoidably bold script.  I don't know if it is a place to "come to," but I have "come to" the place at which my characters are no longer dependent on me.  It is my task to capture the essence of Ginger, not my place to bring her out of myself.  And that's all right.  In some ways, she is more a real character than some of my others.

Your characters are not you.  Have you ever found yourself butting heads with a character you just could not relate to?  Maybe it isn't writer's block: maybe it's that that character is more than ever his own personality and you are depending too much on your own personality to colour all your characters.  It won't do.  It wouldn't do for me, and until I recognized that fact I was having a lot of grief over Ginger.  (I'm still having a lot of grief over Ginger, but that goes without saying...)  But on the encouraging side, all these people really are stuck in your brain, subject to your existence to maintain theirs.  They are not totally independent of you and you can learn their personalities without sacrificing your own.  It just takes more time with some characters than with others.
people are like that too

7 ripostes:

  1. Oh. Please excuse me while I go resurrect a story I thought was doomed. Having a major lightbulb moment over here. Thanks Jenny.

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  2. I have trouble with Favian in this way. Ara's got a lot of my bad qualities and also my inverted-ness, so I always sympathize with her. Adair has some part of me in him that I just can't put my finger on...perhaps my quiet side. I can even work with Tarquin, because I believe we've all got it in us to write/be a villain. They say the only difference between a saint and a monster is how they deal with anger/emotions in general. O_o

    But darn it if Favian just isn't me! He's actually got a good bit of Elizabeth in him, which is why he's great with Ara. (Elizabeth and I get along quite swimmingly. :) Come to think of it, I should go interview Elizabeth - she may help me solve Favian's reactions. At the very least I might understand him better, and that's always nice...

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  3. Oh, I'm so glad, Anne-girl. Hearing that makes my day. ^.^

    I think I've mentioned that I have the same problem with Roxane, who is very like Abigail, who is very not like me. But we get along well, and so I get on with Roxane after my own fashion. With the exception of Mazelin, all my Gingerune characters take time to sort out.

    ...You can't see it, but I'm pressing my copy of Tarquinia and Etruscan Origins against the screen because you reminded me of it. ^.^

    ...I have the darndest library.

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  4. Ah, yes, this makes so much sense. There's definitely a little bit of ME in all my characters (even the psycho ones...opps) XD. In my last WIP I really found myself NOT getting on with my MC, and I think it was because she was nothing like me (for once!). This post definitely makes a lot of sense. Good stuff!

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  5. This post is nothing if not timely! Thanks, Jenny, for dealing with this little writer thing - I have hated to admit it and really try not to think that I have a problem with characterisation; however, I can't help but note that the very main characters of most of my stories (Crown of Life/ A Love that Never Fails) have started off as being slightly wooden, resenting my attempts to sympathise with them and 'get into their heads', while three-fourths of my other main characters, villeins, and secondary characters are seemingly as realistic and three-dimensional as can be.

    In reference to The Crown of Life, Valerius has only a little likeness to me, - but that has been a good thing mostly. He is in a way, a man of the legends of the past and an image of my dad as my imagination tells me he was in his youth: a mish-mash of my favourite classic male characters (a masculine Mary Sue ?? Not really... he is too un -dashingly thoughtful and heartfelt for that!) and after writing for so long on his character, his nature and temperaments have become dear and familiar to me and a heck of a deal easier to write. In looking at my work of characterisation, I occasionally get irked at how 'feminine' my male characters were like especially in the way I portrayed their emotions: I would like to believe I have improved upon this point as I have grown older and realised that the way a woman thinks/responds is quite different than the way a man does ^_^... when I was little I was trying to force Valerius (unintentionally!!) to have the same emotions a girl of fourteen like me would have felt in circumstances of friendship or romance and relationships with family. That, I am glad to say, has quite improved! Valerius naturally owns things that can be found in me - and yet they are instinctive, natural things (such as youthful zeal, insecurity and social awkwardness, a friendly /honest nature) not purposefully shovelled into his character as I was apt to do when I was younger.

    I must say that Jane has been quite the different matter. She has something of the Mary-Sue personality in her which Stengl spoke of at this stage, making it so very frustrating as I write this novel. She has far too many things in common with me, so as to be either the idolisation of all my virtues perfected in sweetness of nature
    - cheerful/happy, diligent, artistic/music and literary/ friendly, caring, meek...an optimist and child-like with all the womanly charms, graces and quiet wit I feel I lack, or an exaggerated imitation of ALL my vices - temperamental, talkative, awkward, simplistic, shy and naive, jolly emotional, melodramatic. In response, I have tried to take a middle-ground with her character, - a place in which I can identify with her struggles, her weaknesses and her virtues without being a model image of myself or my ideals. Yet, your thoughts on Ginger's character have made me think that perhaps I have struggled too hard to 'understand' her as a copy of me...and see her for who she really is! Which lends to a question I have been wishing to ask for a while and perhaps you can tell me your thoughts. As we write early on in a tale and encounter those type of main characters who decide to keep secret their temperament and nature to a great deal till chapter eleven in the book; until 'then' how do you work out the ins-and-outs of their character in reference to dialogue, thoughts and interaction with the other characters without becoming too contradictory or confusing?

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  6. Whatever your difficulties, Joy, I can perceive that you are very honest about them and bear a teachable spirit when it comes to learning to write well. That will carry you far. As regards your last question about how to write characters who prefer to hide their personality, I think I will make a whole blog post for that. :)

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  7. Ooh, thank you, Jenny, for that encouragement!
    Yay, I am looking forward to the 'whole blog post' response when you get the time ^_^

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