Is Your Main Character You?

I have a newspaper article pinned to my wall — Sober – and silent. Written by Michelle Huneven, the clip is about the reaction of readers to her first novel, which was set at a drunk farm (which I guess is an alcohol detox). At this detox place, the clientele attended meetings of the Alcoholics Anonymous variety. All good and done, several years after the book was published, Ms. Huneven was a guest on a talk radio show, wherein a caller asked her if she was in A.A. She was not, and never had been.

Did this fact make Ms. Huneven’s story any less accurate? No. Not at all.

Further into the article, the author poses the question of what the reader often wonders: What’s true? What’s not? She goes on to state that at readings, one of the most frequent questions a writer receives is, “Is the main character based on you?”

Well, I suppose the answer is yes and no. Isn’t there a little part of one’s heart and soul in their main character? To know the MC, we often must face introspection to find the feelings and emotions that drive this person. Do we have a personal understanding of, or experience with something such as depression, illness and violence? Can we take that knowledge and put it into our MC dolly to make her go? Yes. In fact, it is of utmost importance to do so, because it makes a MC genuine.

Research is another key component in the writing process. If your MC isn’t all you (I hope not, otherwise you’re going to have a heap of questions to answer), then how should you fill in the blanks? Accuracy is key, even in stories where the world is make-believe and the people have purple ears. Whether you spend your time at the library or on the Internet, make sure you give your MC dolly some added stuffing to round out the hands and feet.

Getting back to whether your MC is you… I’ve found that personal stories and experiences are the best sources for my work. What started as a brief first-love experience blossomed into a year-long tale for my first story, A Place in This Life. What happens after the initial meeting is all fiction, but with a healthy dose of research and personal experience with family members who have been terminally ill. I’m always a little concerned that someone will think I’m Natalie. My agent asked this right off the bat. My answer was yes and no.  Yes, I knew the person the story was based off of. And no, I didn’t do nearly half of the things that Natalie did in the story. (It’s amazing what the mind can conjure up, however.)

How much of you is in your MC? It’s up to you to decide whether it is best to bare your soul a little, or a lot. Just do it effectively, so that no matter how much of you is in there, your MC will sing to the reader. Now that’s genuine.


3 thoughts on “Is Your Main Character You?

  1. Cool post, Julie! I have four manuscripts I’m working with and in each one there is a little bit of me in terms of life experiences, thoughts, emotions, etc…

    I think it was Richard Peck who said something like: A story is not what happened. It is what might have happened.

  2. Anyone who knows me knows exactly which characters in my works are me. I don’t think I do it to give myself legitimacy in a pollyanna fashion as much as I do it to give the stories a sense of immediacy.

    I wrestled for eight years. I can describe wrestling matches with relative ease. I’ve never climbed a mountain, so telling THAT story would be a lot harder for me.

    I’ve never been a woman (Despite that one frat initiation photo. The guys from Eta Beta Pi are dicks!) so I have a hard time even contemplating things like menstruation and pregnancy. (Thank god, by the way.)

    Take a look at a famous example: I got into a blistering argument in AP English as a freshman for DARING to suggest that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” wasn’t really an accurate portrayal of the South prior to the Civil War, since the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had never been further south than Cincinnati.

    I was excoriated. Of course, now that I’m all growd up and minored in History and all, I know a LEETLE bit more about reality in the South (and guess what? I was right all along.)

    Now here’s an interesting question to ponder: Stowe’s book was not only largely inaccurate, but it fanned the flames that led to war. Given that the United States is the ONLY country in the Western Hemisphere to need violence to abolish slavery, and that much of the racism we have is a direct result of Johnson’s botched Reconstruction… can we blame Harriet Beecher Stowes’ well meaning lies for modern racism?

    And if you’re also trying to write the Great American Novel… what does that mean?

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