A writer who can only write himself into his stories is not, in my view, a writer. Rather, he is a fantasist putting his own daydreams onto paper for vain purposes, either to relive those fantasies or to self-aggrandise.
Sadly some of my favourite authors fall into this category of the vainglorious daydreamer. Neil Gaiman, though I think he’s a masterful storyteller, always seems to tell the same story of a man trying to find the fantastic and escape the ordinary. This man is almost always a middle-aged Englishman of dry wit and awkwardness.
A new favourite, Jodi Taylor of The Chronicles of St Mary’s Series, writes a new take on an old genre, time travelling, and it’s a lot of fun to read. It has a heroine full of verve, humour and sarcasm, a ginger woman of short stature who loves history, chocolate and tea. Then I read the author’s bio, and she very much is her main character, minus the actual time travelling.
When I notice the similarities between author and protagonist, it sadly ruins the wonder of the book for me. I no longer think how creative and inspired the author is, instead I think how sad and boring their lives must be to require escapism on the level of writing themselves into the narrative. It also brings their writing down, in my estimation, from professional to amateurish. Mainly because of the sheer number of bad fan fiction and other types of literary works are now viewable, thanks to the internet, where aspiring writers show off their craft by misguidedly depositing themselves into their favourite TV shows, films and franchises. It is the mark of a desperate soul, clinging to the hope that by writing such a thing they can make its wonders transpire.
I know this, because I did it. In high school I was forever escaping the doldrums of whatever tedious subject I was supposed to be paying attention to, usually Pre-Calculus or another mathematical discipline, and instead would let my gaze drift out the window. I was lucky that our school had a nice view of a lake which surrounded it on three sides, which inspired many daydreams. I’d often imagine the plight of some unearthly creature which, only after my dramatic exit from the classroom via a conveniently open window, could lead to some far-ranging adventure. These adventures would later be scrawled, illegibly for the most part, across the pages of my notebooks in place of the school work I should have been doing.
It was a period of my youthful writing which showed great imagination and promise, but it was not good writing. Only later, with experience and the distance of time which lets one be objective and critical, I realised that these stories were only interesting to me. Or rather, to the me who wrote them at the time, long outgrown. I was holding a mirror up to myself and manipulating the image to what I wish I had been and what I wish I had been able to do. The result was only exciting in comparison to the original image, my own awkward, shy and nerdy self, and in reference to my own desires and fantasies. An objective third party, critiquing me to the standard of all the beloved novels I have always held my own work against, would likely not give a hoot about the dramatic adventures of how I found a wounded unicorn, or magical crow, or fallen angel, and then helped restore a kingdom, or found a sacred object, with its help.
Yet, unfortunately, such is the stuff of many a published work. There’s a lot of nonsense out there, and plenty of people who enjoy it. It’s just not for me.
I strive to write real characters from my own imagining in such a way as to hold a mirror up to the reader, and wider world, instead of to my own face. The novels I dream of writing have something important to say on a wider scale than simple escapism for the writer as she writes. A novel which avoids sermonising, but has a moral undercurrent, that deals with issues that are at once modern and ancient, everlasting; gender, the Other, mankind’s delicate balance with the natural world. I want to make my readers think, holding that mirror to their own eyes and wondering if they can change themselves, or change the world.
Ultimately, whether the protagonist of a story has some superficial resemblance to the author writing it is a small facet of the novel as a whole. Or maybe the author can protest, “Well yes, she may have ginger hair and like chocolate and history like I do, but she’s much sassier than I am so isn’t really me at all!” But for me, once the fourth wall of the story is broken, and I see the author in the story, it stops being real for me. I stop believing in it, and that ruins everything.