How Much of Yourself Goes Into Your Book?

- by Dianne Drake

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I did something recently that I’ve never done. I wrote a story about me, fictionalized it, embellished parts, changed some facts to make it more interesting, then submitted it to Lou Aronica to be included in I Never Thought I’d See You Again. It was a really difficult thing to do first, because it was about my fight with cancer, but also because it was a story that put me out there on the line. I debated doing the story, put it off even after Lou had accepted it because, as a writer, I love the part where I get to hide behind the characters I write and the stories I create. But in Facing the Mirror I laid it all out there pretty bare, and it wasn’t easy.

So that got me to thinking about how much, as writers, we put into our books. Blood, sweat and tears aside, do we create characters that are a part of ourselves? Or do we create characters based on people who have touched our lives? A dear friend of mine, a mentor of sorts, told me about his childhood, and how he was raised in an orphanage run by nuns. One nun in particular was brutal, a child abuser, if you will. She beat my friend mercilessly on more occasions than he could remember because she believed every child needed to be beaten into submission and obedience.

My friend went on to become one of the great horror writers whose work has become part of the culture. But with all his successes in life, he never got over the nun, and in some form, he killed her in every one of the books he ever wrote. Only he knew who she was in the book, and only a few selected people knew he did this. That was him laying it all out there bare, and every time he killed that nun it agonized him all over again. Not the part where he killed her but the memories of suffering at her hand. Yet he still did it, had to do it, maybe was even obsessed to do it.

When I created Maggie White though, I wasn’t obsessed to do it. In fact, I was reluctant because I wasn’t particularly thrilled to let the world know I went a little crazy for a time. But there it is now, in print, for everybody to witness. And it makes me wonder how much of myself I’ve put into characters in the other fifty or so books I’ve written, where the heroine has done amazing, or wonderful or even stupid things. I’m pretty sure I’m not consciously scripting me into my stories, like my friend scripted some manifestation of his nun. But as I’m often asked, just where do you find your characters? From life, I usually tell them. Or from observation. In truth, I don’t really know. Characters just pop into my head when I need them to pop, then they develop as they need to develop. Maybe they are me, or parts of me. Could be they’re bits and pieces of everybody I know. Or maybe they’re pure fantasy.

Truth is, I think my characters are a vast store of life experience. They’re no one in particular, and yet they’re everyone I meet. I met a young man today whose passion in life is writing, yet creating the characters is what scares him the most. He doesn’t know where they’ll come from, or if they’ll come when he decides to write a book. He doesn’t know how to instill traits in them, or create stories for them that someone may relate to. “The other parts are easy,” he said. “I can make up stories all day, but I just can’t put the characters in them.” Makes me wonder if he has a brutal nun in his past who might fit the bill. Or maybe all he has to do is face himself, and leave some of that on the page. Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve created a lot of different characters of the course of my writing career and, God willing, I’ll be creating a lot more. But the one who has scared me the most was me.

So tell me, how much of you goes into the characters you create?

Facing the Mirror along with some really good stories is out now. If you haven’t purchased I Never Thought I’d See You Again, support NINC and pick up or download a copy.

2 comments

  1. There’s usually one character in my stories who resembles some aspects of me. I don’t do that on purpose, I just choose traits and themes that resonate for me. I don’t always know which character is most like me, apparently. In my current WIP, I had it in the back of my mind that the protagonist has some similarity to me. When my critique partner pointed out that the hero was more clearly defined and a stronger personality, I realized I identified more with him than her.
    Thanks for writing this intriguing, thought-provoking post.

  2. Dianne,

    Our mutual ‘nun killing’ friend would be so proud of your success! Psychology is another of your many talents! Well done my friend!