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.


  1. says

    I think I will attempt to embrace that butt naked feeling that overwhelms me from time to time when I write. It can be my writing companion. I see this is a common obstacle for many writers. I never realized that. Now I see it’s okay to have these feelings. Like Robin said, “Embrace The Naked.”

    Thank you Don – AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. says

    I am just wrapping up a first draft, maybe another 5,000 words, which should mean this week -eh, does mean this week! This is the first time I’ve written in Scrivener and it has helped me milk the memories and emotions. After all, I am not a grieving widow, now I’m a newlywed but twenty years ago I was one. When a character reacts to the news of his wife’s death, that is from my well of experience. But, also filtered through time, which is a great editor.

    I recently created a scene-bank in Scrivener. It is a new file that has brief essays, poems, outlines, etc -they are like deposits. For example, Mother in Law visits and flings invisible arrows at me when no one is around, then others get to see her result, me upset and cranky. Last time, I immediately grabbed my computer and wrote the scene, how I felt and optional responses. Later, my character used some of this -the emotional response resulting from working with a person who is sabotaging your career. I think it may be oddly therapeutic and I may end up writing about a Narcissist MIL-after all, we all need a villian.

  3. says

    I gave a character my fear of small, closed in spaces and then I locked her in a basement. It was a difficult scene to write, but I did like the end result. I’m thinking it’s time to try something similar again.

  4. says

    This post is, I think, spot on. It’s the truth about the truth: the truth of living and experiencing and feeling. It’s also difficult as heck to accomplish. I’m struggling mightily with this very subject as I try to put together my next novel. The good stuff, the important stuff, seems all too embarrassing either to those who knew me when or those who know me now. How much do I mask that? Is masking necessary? How do I avoid the conundrum that Jamaica Kincaid finds herself in with her latest book? Her “See Now Then” is profiled coincidentally today in a New York Times article that points out everyone thinks her book is autobiographical while she maintains it is not. It also takes more than a little arrogance to throw yourself onto the page and expect your readers to marvel at your own glorious humanity ugly warts and all. But, Don, thanks for this post. Maybe it’s the shove I need to get something worthwhile started.

    • says

      Well, that really is the ultimate shield: “It’s fiction.” And it is. I say there is no shame in portraying emotions. It is not wrong to draw upon experience in creating story events.

      It is, of course, against the law to defame people. (It’s a stretch but in fact it can be done in fiction.) But you’re not doing that, right?

  5. says

    I get it, Donald. It’s the ultimate of ‘write what you know’. Should be useful self-therapy, also, to shine a bright light of evaluation on ourselves in the process. A positive double whammy.

    • says

      Therapy? Maybe so. Therapy transforms painful experiences by recalling but then reframing them. If a story does that then, yes, I suppose writing that story can be theraputic.

      In fact, that may be a good measure of how well personal experience is used in fiction: Does it merely recreate experience or does it ultimately transform it? Does the author wallow or transcend?

  6. says

    I guess my biggest problem with infusing more of myself into my protag is the ole Rodney Dangerfield syndrome (You know, an “I looked up my family tree and found I was the sap,” type thing). I’d fear for his likeability. Maybe the Rodney thing would help me to delve into the shame stuff (“My wife was afraid of the dark… till she saw me naked. Now she’s afraid of the light.”)

    Thanks for the prod to expose myself. The newsletter piece was great, too.

  7. says

    I tend to let my “dark side” come out in some form or another in the antagonist, but I like the idea of doing the same, to a degree, with the protagonist. I used to worry that if the protagonist was dark/too dark, he or she wouldn’t be liked, but I’m learning that “liked” can be overrated and not necessarily what makes a great character or story.

  8. says

    I tend to find “bits and pieces” of myself in all of my characters. It can sometimes be jarring when I read over a draft and spot something of myself in a villain or in a less desirable protagonist. But, it’s all part of the writing and life process to see these things in your work and to recognize them in yourself.

    • says

      Yes, it reminds me of the experience of hearing my five year old son say things the way I do…and of hearing myself say things the way my parents did!

  9. says

    I just wrote a similar piece for She Writes this week. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and a little transparent in our writing gives our writing, I believe, warmth, depth, readability and allows the reader to engage with us. The scary part, of course, as a writer is being willing to dig a little deeper to unveil ourselves more.

    Good topic– one that’s been on my mind more lately. Glad to hear these thoughts affirmed.

    • says

      Julie- It would be interesting to know what WU writers have found the most difficult to expose in their stories. Then again, I suppose we can just read the stories, no?

  10. Carmel says

    Exposing your embarrassing faults gets a little easier as you get older and quit caring so much what people think. I’ve found that if I’m not honest, it blocks my writing.

      • Carmel says

        Not caring so much and grandbabies. Nothing else about aging is a lot of fun. Except hopefully we’re a little wiser and a little richer.

  11. Denise Willson says

    Spot on, Don, thanks!

    I interview my characters on a regular basis. I am their doctor, lawyer, therapist, boss, and they’re forced to share all. (Evil laugh) I am very sneaky that way.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  12. says

    Old advice, but always valuable. Stephen Pressfield talks about it as Resistance. Ironically, one reason we write IS to expose – or rather share – all those dark corners. How else do we make sense of who we are, find out why we are? Competitors – professional athletes, for example – experience the same hesitation. ALL IN means Letting Go. Oh, but what we find on the other side, when we go through the looking glass.

    This is one of those posts to be bookmarked and referred to when the characters get stubborn and refuse to move.

    Thanks, Donald!

  13. says

    I didn’t think about this until I was driving to work this morning. There is a part of me that wants to be exposed- thanks for reminding me David Y.B. Kaufmann. It’s why I write. My childhood dream was to be someone else. It’s still my dream. The world of writing is one of the few realities where I can be more than human, evil, good, and larger-than-life.

    I’ve heard the advice before but being in a different state of mind or in a different stage in my writing has brought more clarity.

    Now, I have a better understanding of the term- Closet Writer.

  14. says

    Each of my characters has something of me.
    The things I like about myself, and then things I wish I could change.
    Even the most poorly behaved character has a bit of me.
    The heroine finally finds her courage later in her life.But was it too late? There’s a discussion for another day–“did I grow up in time?”
    The things I fear most are in there and the things I wished I’d never done.
    Being able to weave ourselves into our stories gives the reader the mirror effect. And the reader hopefully comes back for more.

  15. says

    “It also takes more than a little arrogance to throw yourself onto the page and expect your readers to marvel at your own glorious humanity ugly warts and all.”

    Jack – I disagree. Humility after experiencing the not so pretty parts of life is what enables me to expose myself to the world. I’m finding people make the same comment over and over after reading my book: “I love the way you write. You’re so honest about feelings.” As long as they keep saying it, I’ll keep writing about the “forbidden issues in our daily lives.”

    Love this article, Don – a keeper!

  16. says

    My main character of one of my novels is so much like me that my readers say it’s like watching me act and talk in the world of that MS. I find this sort of cool and sort of unsettling at the same time.

  17. Rachel Thompson says

    I’ve never had a problem with self exposure. My philosophy is serve the story first. I unconsciously install bits and pieces of me in every character and that’s OK because I only use the bits that sharpen story. The rest gets canned. My boring self gets chopped off like a rotting appendage. My fantasy self goes hog wild.

  18. says

    it’s easy (for me) to write about the good stuff; the things that bring me joy and warm my heart. The thought of delving deep into my shame, anger, despair, and similar for character development makes me uncomfortable. It’s for that reason I’ll be doing it. Thanks (I think) for the tip.