The Man (or Woman) in the Mirror

photo by Frabuleuse

Is your protagonist a lot like you, or like you not at all?

In an absolute sense all characters reflect their creators. How could it be otherwise? Those crazy people must bubble up somehow from the storyteller’s rich, messy unconscious mind. Fear of such self exposure can be inhibiting. It can lead to weak character development or a retreat into stereotypes.

Characters can also be based upon folks known to the author, a possibility that can be even more inhibiting. Authors have been known to hold off writing certain novels until their parents died. Who can blame them? Strong stories ring true—and who wants to expose awful, inconvenient truths? Thanksgiving dinner with one’s family is stressful enough.

Even so, for characters to become fully real they must achieve the form they’re meant to take. They must become their authentic selves. Box characters in, force them to be or do what is safe, and they’ll become marionettes, with about as much impact and emotional grip. To embrace the fullness of your characters you’ve got to embrace yourself.

Here are a few ways to explore, and exploit, the relationship between you and your characters, in particular your protagonist:

• What do you love best about life? What do you hate most about people? What’s wrong with the world? What do you hope will never change? Give those feelings to your protagonist.

• What do you go out of your way to avoid? Why is that good? Why is that bad? Let your protagonist avoid that too—and later regret doing so.

• For you, what are signs of: respect, humility, confidence and/or love. Let your protagonist observe each one in others, and herself put each one into practice—or not.

• What’s your deepest shame? What have you told no one? Why does it haunt you? What would take that sting away? Put your protagonist through the same experience.

• Of whom are you most afraid? Whom do you most want to tell off? Who deserves your scorn, slap or flame-thrower blast? Allow your protagonist to confront one whom you would not—and let loose.

It’s natural to avoid exposure yet, in a way, the more you expose yourself the more your readers will love you. When confronted with characters who are powerful and authentic—which is to say fearlessly based in oneself—readers are moved. When they’re moved you’ve got them. It’s the effect you want to have.


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.