This week's question—"Is your protagonist really you? How do you separate him/her from you?"—seems to be a pretty common one, popping up in the q&a portion of book readings and maybe inevitably crossing readers' minds whenever the author and character have anything remotely in common (age, gender, geography).
For me, the answer might seem an easy one. I'm a late-fortysomething guy, and Louise, the narrator of the stories in On the Road with Del & Louise, is a woman nearly two decades younger—and probably a lot better looking too, at least how I imagine her. Even in the stories I'm working on now, about a crime-solving duo—a bookseller and accountant (I'm not kidding)—there's great distance between me and them: Emerson Royce is agoraphobic, a full decade older than me, and he carries a linebacker's build, and Zoe Jacobs is mid-twenties, sports an attentively tousled pixie cut, and often suspects the universe is telling her something.
No similarities whatsoever, right?
And yet... Louise and I both grew up in small-town North Carolina, both remember fondly the smell of cut grass on a dewy morning and the taste of honeysuckles, and both had similar reactions to the price of wine tastings in Napa Valley. Emerson—Emmery, to his friends—and I drink the same teas and browse online for similar first editions and limited printings of rare books. And Zoe drives a Karmann Ghia convertible very much like the one I once wanted when I was a kid. Oh, and I read my horoscope every day.
So how do you draw from yourself and on your own experiences on the one hand and yet keep some distance on the other?
Each day lately when I've sat down to write, I've taken a moment to read a little about writing—just a way to kick-start the process, I guess (I hope), in the same way that I try to read a short story at some point almost every day to stay sharp on craft and structure. The book I've been keeping on my desk lately is Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville and suggested to me originally by the great flash fiction writer Kathy Fish (read Kathy's recent story "A Proper Party" here—charming, disturbing, and heartbreaking in equal measure).
The essays in Rules of Thumb range between a half-page and three pages usually, so a quick bit of inspiration, and just this week I read one that seems to speak to the questions at hand in interesting ways. In "The Great I-Am," Brian Kiteley offers the following passage, quoting William Vollmann before expanding and articulating his own thoughts:
"William Vollmann says, 'We should never write without feeling. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other as equal partners.' The Self in fiction is the given, and the Other is the icing on the cake—humor is possible only with two or more characters. Tragedy deals with individuals, and comedy with classes of people. We want fiction to explore someone else's consciousness—we read fiction to feel the way someone else feels.... Young writers should use the I sparingly. We should look outside ourselves, beyond our own small worlds. We can imagine a larger space than we usually do.
Too much looking inward, too much navel-gazing—that's a danger. Even as we must inevitably draw to some degree on what we know, there's a larger world out there too, a larger group of people very much unlike ourselves, and our job as writers is to let our curiosity, our sense of inquiry, draw us into that bigger world, toward meeting those people. Whether I succeed or not, that's part of my aim in writing my own stories.