Monday, July 20, 2015

A case of mistaken identity

by Meredith Cole

Many readers are under the impression that all writers "write what they know." So your protagonist is probably you, too, right?

Uh, no. My protagonist in my first two books was a single photographer named Lydia McKenzie. Apparently I was convincing in describing her photography since a couple of readers asked me about my photography career. I like taking pictures, and used to be a filmmaker--but I've never worked as a photographer.

I suppose really Lydia McKenzie and I have many more differences than similarities. She's younger, single, loves wearing crazy vintage clothes and desperately trying to get her art career off the ground by landing a show. I'm married, a mom, and I write books. I like clothes, but certainly never put together crazy outfits. At least, not ones I ever thought were crazy.

But I certainly know enough about Lydia McKenzie's world to write about it. I am married to an artist, so I know enough about New York galleries to write a plot around one. I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn so I could write confidently about our neighborhood and all the crazy characters. And I have plenty of single friends who told me crazy stories of dating in New York. 

Now I've moved on to a standalone. Probably all three of my main characters have elements of myself in them at different times in my life. The 12-year-old girl loves to read. The private eye loves to find out the truth. And the teller has big dreams of an artistic lives. I certainly use things that happened to me. But to be clear, I never robbed a bank or kidnapped someone, so I had to figure out how to write about those things (just like I had to write about finding dead bodies). And that's the truth.


Gerald So said...

Hi, Meredith.

I think readers conflating authors with their characters is a testament to how well authors have crafted their fictions, or how eager readers are to believe.

Having pursued writing through academia, I wound up in workshops where the highest-marked stories were thinly-veiled autobiography, which taught me how important realism is to fiction, but I was drawn to write fiction in the first place for the exercise imagining and empathizing with people different from me.

This much said, there probably is a lot of me in my characters, but on psychological levels you wouldn't see unless you knew me reasonably well. Sometimes even I don't see these levels. Ask ten writers to flesh out the same character. Each would empathize with different aspects of the character, nuancing each finished product accordingly.

Meredith Cole said...

That's a great point, Gerald! Definitely the psychological aspects reflect elements of ourselves, more than the specifics (single, females, etc.). And our uniqueness as individuals definitely comes out in our characters as we write.

Triss said...

Using first person narrative, as most mystery writers do including me, adds to the tendency to confuse character with writer. Like you, I would say my protagonist has some pieces of me ( she is a mother, she lives in my neighborhood, she loves history, I'm told her voice sounds like me ) with qualities that are definitely not me ( she grew up in Brooklyn, she was widowed young, she is much younger than I am, etc) Wouldn't you say that living an alternative life is part of the fun of writing?

Meredith Cole said...

I think you're right, Triss! When I was writing my first book, I had a small child. It was definitely fun to "live vicariously" through my single main character who could actually get out of the house now and then!

Susan C Shea said...

I acknowledge that Dani O'Rourke and I share some history. We have both been professional fundraisers and involved with the arts. I, however, was never married to a multimillionaire with impulse control issues, two Porsches, and a pied a terre in Paris. But when bought rights to The King's Jar and made a recording, I was rattled by the (first person) narration of their actor, who had a New York accent and sounded not at all :-)

Meredith Cole said...

What a great story, Susan! I'm sure it would disconcerting to have your character's "voice" sound so different...