Saturday, 28 May 2016

Your Characters, You, and Other People


I know this is an old topic but I thought I'd give my two cents, since I don't think this is ever really going to be outdated. The more I write, the more I get asked if a character is based on someone, usually if they're based on myself. Or if I would base a character on someone, or if there's a character who represents me. I think this is familiar to most writers and it seems like the general assumption is that writers do base their characters on real people.

It's a little funny to me. I doubt that the same people would assume that any of the standard soap opera characters they see every day on TV, would be based on real people. So, I don't think the reason for that assumption is that they can't imagine a fictional character could come from anywhere else than a real life model. I think that for some reason literature is just viewed differently. I still can't put my finger on exactly why, but I think it's mostly people who haven't really read since the required 3-4 books in high school or middle school. In that case I guess it could have something to do with literature's (especially with a capital L) supposed ”serious” nature. After all, what is more serious that real life?

But, they're not the only ones. Some avid readers assume, or at least ask those things all the time. And from authors whose worlds are clearly imaginary. Even J.K. Rowling has been asked if someone in her books was based on her. I think most people thought it was Harry, because they share a birthday.

So, here's another thought. Maybe some readers think that a character must be based an a real person because they find them so relatable? After all, that's the reading style I most often see in people. They like to read about something and someone they relate to. If they're not writers themselves, it doesn't seem weird to assume that a character who seems so realistic to them personally, would be based on a particular person.


That could be one reason, but actually it still doesn't explain my case, or probably that of most writers. After all, the people who usually ask it, or assume that my characters are based on me or someone else, have never read my stories. Like one friend from university. He heard that I write and his next questions was: ”Oh, are your characters all, like, different versions of yourself?” Sometime later he told me that if he wrote, he would write about his own Gary Stu version saving the world and getting the girl of his dreams and stuff.

Actually, I think this might be it for most people. Most people aren't writers. Of course that doesn't mean they're not empathetic enough to imagine what the world would be like through someone elses eyes, that's not what I mean. I just mean that when something is foreign to you the easiest way to get to know it is through something you already know. So when they think about writing a character, it's natural to think of the person they already know the best: themselves. The next would be the people you know intimately, those would probably be your supporting characters. And then your side characters would be the people you don't really know but remember for some quirk or personality trait. And it doesn't seem unreasonable to think that others would do the same.

Not to say that all writers start like that, not at all. I certainly didn't. The first character I wrote a ”book” about was Santa Claus. I think that at least a great portion of writers are naturally interested in looking at the world from many different eyes. That's why they're writers.



None of the people with the assumptions (or possible reasons for them) mentioned so far bother me. But there is a group of people who definitely do. The ones who insist that my character must be based on me, no matter what. And usually for reasons as dumb as a matching birthday.

These people already seem to look through particular lenses: that if they find ANY similarities between me and my character, the character is basically me. This is so dumb it makes me speechless. Are you seriously suggesting that a character is not me only if they share absolutely nothing with me? They have to be my opposites in every possible way? How many people like that do you come accross on an average day?

What I'm saying is that purposely making a character different from you in every way just to avoid people assuming that your character is you, is just as dumb as making all your characters just like you.

What's funny is, that the characters who get accused of being ”me” are not usually the ones in the whole cast who actually share the most qualities with me. (I guess it just shows how superficially those people know me...) The assumption is based on dumb triggers like, the characters name starts with an ”E”, or they're blond, or they like to draw. Their personality is actually given very little thought. Even if it's obviously different from me, I guess it's just easy to say that they're my Mary Sue, and what I'd actually like to be. Huh. Everything gets so weird when someone just loves their theory too much to look at anything objectively.



Here's why these people's logic is frustrating:

1. The point is that I know about drawing, and art. It wouldn't make any sense to purposely write about a topic I know nothing about or have no interest for. So if a character of mine is into these things it's not to make them like me. It's so that I can write about a subject I know and care about! It's because the subject itself is interesting to me. Obviously I need a character who is interested in art to write about art. Most of the time my artistic characters are not even artistic in the same ways that I am. They may like to paint ladscapes, portraits, or abstract art. I don't generally like to do any of those.

Even if a character seems to like what I like on the surface, they're not necessarily like me. Actually, a character who does something different from me, but does it in a similar way to how I do my stuff, would resemble me a lot more than a character who does ”what I do” but has a completely different approach. A character might even be a mage, or something I could never actually be, and they could still be a lot more like me than the artist who paints landscapes, if their way of magic was analogous to my way of art.

2. I have pretty vast interests. Most of them are also pretty common. In every one of my hobbies, I personally know at least one person who is also interested in it. And usually many. It's really unreasonable to expect that every character who likes something that I like is like me, if real people aren't.



And it would be really dumb from me to avoid writing characters who like music, dancing, writing, reading, or a dozen other things that many people like. I think in an average school class you would find more than one person in each of those fields. I certainly was never the only person in my class to do any of those.

3. People are coincidentally similar. If I set out to it, I would probably be able to find a lot of similarities (as well as differences) from me and all of my characters. That's because I could do the same with every person I met on the street! I would expect it to be fairly easy to find at least one thing we could bond with.

Also, some genes have a habit of appearing with a similar set of genes. I mean, for example, it's more common for blonds to have blue than brown eyes. (At least where I live.) The same goes for personality traits. Certain traits like to appear together. Writers, for example, are often pretty introspective people. That doesn't mean everyone is like that. It just means that not every single character can be the exception.

In short: When you think a character is ”like me”, because they are, let's say blond AND blue-eyed AND fair skinned, or artistic AND sensitive AND introverted, it's probably because in their circumstances, all those traits makes sense, they're simply more realistic than some others, and there's no reason to purposely deviate from that.

The circumstances also make them different from me. And there are countless shades of blond, as well as there are countless ways to be introverted.


If anyone looked closely enough, I think they would see that the amount of similarities and differences between my characters and me, seems completely random. Because it is completely random. In a way, at least. In the same way that it is between real people.

I think you can really think the process of creating a character to be analogous to the way real humans are. We all are a pretty random selection of genes from a vast pool. Characters come from the writers imagination where all kinds of stored human traits are just swimming around, as well as the patterns about how those traits form together. And at some point a selection of them always comes together and forms a character.

At least that's how it works for me, my characters are a synthesis of the general knowledge I have about humans. That's why none of them is exactly like some real person, not me, and not anyone I know. In that sense they are as unique as any human being.



Now that I've ranted about this, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the characters who have been accused of ”being me” the most! And most of all, how much they actually resemble me...

I'm going to include MBTI and Enneagram here, but if you're not familiar with it, you can just ignore it, but if you know about it, I think it adds something to this comparison. So, I'm an MBTI INFJ and Enneagram 9.



Keller

(I know, a weird first name. I had a lot of those when I was a kid.)

This one might actually be the fairest accusation. Heh. She's from an exchange comic I drew with my friend when we were 12-16.

It's a story about a group of four girls with magical powers, and really weird unexplained missions, though that part of the story is frequently overshadowed by their personal life. It's more of a friendship/romance/family drama, really.

The reason: She kind of looks like me, likes ballet, is kind and always seems to know what to say.

Similarities:
  • INFJ
  • Blond hair and blue eyes
  • Likes singing and dances ballet.
  • Frequently ends up as the ”couselor” in her friend group.
  • Sometimes writes songs.
  • Sensitive in good and bad ways.

Differences:
  • Enneagram 2
  • Super religious: I'm not an atheist, but I'm nowhere near her end of the spectrum.
  • Way more outgoing than me:
      • She likes to voice her opinions even when she knows it's going to put people off, which is something I still struggle with.
      • She butts in with everyone's business easily and is the first to give advise, while I'm generally the type to wait for others to ask my help.
  • Rythmic gymnastics is her one true love (which I've never even been into) and ballet which is my thing is just extra for her.
  • She's straight, I'm ace.


I have to agree that we share some significant similarities, even though I don't agree that she's essentially a self insert. I drew this to my friend, so we kind of communicated our issues through the comic sometimes, but not systematically. Like we were briefly using the characters for our benefit but then they continued their separate lives again.

One example: Keller confesses in one chapter that she's never been in love, but that is never mentioned again and she doesn't seem to have any trouble falling in love romantically later in the story and it's never reflected back to this earlier statement. I think it's pretty clear that I was figuring out my own asexual, aromantic identity and that's why it got in the comic but then again it didn't really stuck as part of Keller.

The good thing is, that the comments about Keller resembling me are the only ones without a hint of condesension. They're honestly based on impartial observation that we share some qualities.


Ekijo

(I know her name looks impossible to pronounce but, in the Finnish way it's not, actually. And yes, noticeable pseudo-Asian influences.)

She's an elf girl from a fantasy story I wrote when I was 14. It was really clichéd which is no wonder since it started as a school assingment and we were supposed to include TEN common fantasy elements (=clichés) in it. What a dumb exercise! I'm surprised my ten didn't include an evil overlord.

Ekijo is an orphan and an elf and neither of these facts play any part in the story. She's tomboy-ish, wants to be a hunter, but has to settle with carrying messages between villages, because she's a girl. She goes on a journey to carry messages with her best friend Hajai, who is a half elf (also no effect on the story) and together they discover a hidden kingdom that was created to protect magical creatures. Surprise, Ekijo is actually an heir to that kingdom, and to be married to Hajai because their mothers were friends! Yay!

The reason: She's a girl and every fantasy writer writes about themselves.

Similarities:
  • Blond hair, blue eyes
  • Born on the countryside and likes to be near forests and water.
  • People do say I look like an elf sometimes... (My ears aren't that pointy though, only slightly.)
  • Likes to climb trees.
  • Creative

Differences:
  • ENFP Enneagram 2
  • Hyperactive:
      • Always running around or riding a horse for no apparent reason. (I'm more of a nice peaceful walks kind of person.)
      • Reckless and frequently gets into trouble when excited. (I'm almost overly careful.)
      • Always wants to see more of the world. (I'm pretty content, where ever I am.)
      • Always wants to try new things. (I've been stuck with the same obsessions since kindergarten. It's rare for anything new to really stick.)
  • Agressive:
      • Most likely the one to start a fight. (I'll be the one calmly trying to solve it.)
      • Snaps the second she hears anything that might be read as misogynism, often when the person doesn't even mean it that way. (Like, if Hajai thinks Ekijo needs someone to look after her because she's so reckless, she immediately thinks it's only because she's a girl.)
      • In general doesn't let any insult pass. (I'll most likely only intervene if someone else is being mistreated.)
  • Knows how to fight, with or without weapons. (I did kendo for a year but like that even counts...)
  • Doesn't have any artistic, or musical talent.
  • Expressive, quick to state her every opinion without much thinking. (I have trouble with both.)
  • Pretty thick in some ways (which I'm not):
      • Wouldn't realize if someone had a crush on her.
      • Isn't generally aware of what people think of her.
      • Might not notice if she has offended someone.
      • Not aware of relationship dynamics or the emotional atmosphere to much detail.
      • Usually has a simplified view of people's personalities.
  • Straight, and romantically interested in a guy in the story.
  • Arranged to be married to her best friend.
  • Has a job as a messenger between villages.


Yeah well, we aren't that similar at all. I think most of the comments were actually based on that. After all fantasy often gets accused of Mary Sues. Why wouldn't I want to write myself as an extroverted adventurer type? Doesn't everyone?

Well, as far as Mary Sues go, Ekijo is far from perfect. She doesn't hit many of the common Sue traits. I don't think she's labeled even pretty, let alone stunningly beautiful, even once in the story, she has many people who don't like her because she's honestly annoying, I can't say she's the destiny's favourite in anyway, and even though she's an orphan, she has a loving foster mother who doesn't die.

Ekijo gets her fair share of trouble because she causes it. She's an heir to a really small hidden magical kingdom which is no pleasure to rule and way behind the kingdom she grew up in, in pretty much every way. Most of her problems are personal and she doesn't go through any ”glorious” battles which would make the world worship her or something, like is common for fantasy Sues. Ekijo doesn't even get to marry the guy she's in love with.

Yeah, that's totally everyone's fantasy.


Joki

 (Her name means river in Finnish. And no, neither the spelling or the meaning was a reference to anything.)

I'm not even sure she has enough substance to really be reviewed. She's from a 10 page humour comic I did in art class in high school.

Basically the story is about how Joki tries to make her interests seem cooler than she believes they are and fails.

The reason: She's a girl. Like maybe I want to live with a guy best friend to not be like other girls. (Um what.)

Similarities:
  • We like cosplay? (I wouldn't mention it in my interests though.)


Differences:
  • Dark hair
  • Very extroverted
  • Obsessed with superheroes.
  • Likes video games.
  • Embarassed about her nerdiness.
  • Lies easily.
  • Lives with a guy.

That's about everything the reader can observe about her personality and I really find myself in none of that. Um, I guess it's clear enough how biased you have to be to think this is my self insert.


Leonardo

He's an artist, and a suspect, from a mystery play I wrote in high school and put together with my drama group.

The story: Hannibal Casanova has died in more than weird circumstances, so his children summon two quirky detectives to solve the case. The suspects are quickly narrowed down to the lazy son Leonardo, headstrong daughter Melody, and the scared neighbour boy Pablo. One of the detectives seems to be more interested in competition than the murder and the other one doesn't seem to be doing anything, except talking to her cat.

The reason: He's an artist. "The writer always writes their self into the story."

Similarities:
  • Enneagram 9
  • He can paint.
  • Introverted


Differences:
  • ISFJ
  • Paints abstract art and landscapes. (I don't like either.)
  • Has glasses, brown hair, and likes to wear a ponytail.
  • Has an alcohol problem. (The drinks I have in a year can be counted with one hand.)
  • Rich
  • Gay, and has a boyfriend.
  • Extremely unaware of what's going on around him.
  • Very slow speech, repeats himself a lot.
  • Usually incredibly slow to react.
  • Unambitious, cares about very few things.

Someone started it and then people kept saying he was my self insert because he's an artist. (I'm not even a real artist!) The irony is, there was actually a character a lot more like me, yet she's never been accused of being even similar to me. Interesting.

These comments were from the less condesending side, but not completely free from it because people kept insisting that I was ”never free” from the fact that I'd always write a character who represented me, no matter what I did. Eeh. How many of those people actually knew anything about writing, I'll let you guess.

And no, he's not an artist because I have artistic inclinations. He's an artist because he needed a job his father would dissaprove of, something he's passionate about but sounds like what a rich, status conscious and old-fashioned farther wouldn't stereotypically want his son to be. An artist, specifically, was a style choice, it suited the tone of the play the best. It was merely a plot device. This is not a story about art in anyway.


Mimosa

Another comic I made in high school, for an art history class.

It's about a girl who is fed up with everything at school, except art. She goes to the art class to paint every break, neglecting her friends, and at home she draws and sleeps, neglecting her homework and little sister. One day she finds a weird medallion in her bag and when she opens it she's taken on a journey through art history and she learns a thing or two about herself, and her art, on the way.


The reason: She's an artistic high school girl.

Similarities:
  • Enneagram 9
  • Artistic

Differences:
  • INFP
  • Really long hair, I've never had that long hair. Also her hair is light brown.
  • I've never worn anything as short as her pants.
  • I was never that stereotypical art student who went to paint every break.
  • I've never fallen into a slump like hers with school work.
  • She can't dance.
  • I've never been part of a clique of ”the cool kids” like she is in the beginning.
  • I don't think I could ever be as careless about consequences as she is.

It's the ART, again! And no, this time she isn't artistic because I am, either. It's because the subject of the story was art history. I didn't want to write about a character who knows absolutely nothing about it, because I wanted to fit character developement into a 40 page comic. It was better to use the characters strenghts to overcome her weaknesses rather than put her into a completely random journey into something she has no interest in.



In the end, I guess I should be happy that only the unbiased comments have had any truth to them. Well, that sounds pretty probable, anyway.

I guess what I wish is that people would actually think about what they are claiming and where they're coming from when they say stuff like this.



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