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Monday, January 20, 2014

Me, Myself, and My Characters

My thirteen-year-old niece recently read my book for a school assignment and sent me an adorable note about it. Her mother, my sister-in-law, told me that when Nina was reading, she was “hearing” me through my first person narrator. Then my sister-in-law confessed that she’d had the same response when she read it.

When my mother read my very first novel, a romantic comedy with a first person narrator, she persisted in believing that my narrator—a thirtyish redhead given to snappy repartee—was really her daughter in disguise. At a certain point in her reading, she turned to my father in triumph. “Hah!” she said, “She’s killed you off and given me a rich boyfriend.” No matter that my narrator’s mom is in fact my own age—young enough to be my mother’s daughter

When my sons read my work, they tell me it takes a good fifty pages before they stop hearing my voice and start hearing the voice of my narrator. But it’s more than the voice. It’s the character’s quirks they recognize, too. Springsteen fan? Check.  A fondness for beach glass, anisette, old movies, and a good Bolognese sauce? Check, check, check, and check.

“You’re on every page,” Son #3 told me. “There’s no escaping you.”

Why this belief that our characters are really their creators in another form?  With first person narration, I suppose it’s a natural assumption from the people who know us best because they spot the clues—a joke they’ve heard us make shows up in dialogue. Or a preference we have for a given food or a certain romantic type appears in the narrative. All this has gotten me thinking about the qualities with which we invest our characters, and how much of their personalities are our own.

In my current series, my main character, like me, is a mystery writer who loves the Jersey shore. And like me, she’s afraid of boardwalk rides, loves rustic Italian food, and has a weakness for tall guys with dark hair. Though she is also young, single, famous, and any number of things I am not, we certainly share some personality traits.

So I ask myself: is imbuing my character with pieces of myself a form of vanity? Laziness?  An unconscious part of the process of creation? Or perhaps all of the above? And sometimes the voice of doubt tells me that I’m not yet the writer I should be, that a real writer would create characters from whole cloth, instead of from a patchwork of traits.

In any case, I now have a stock answer for when friends and family members ask the inevitable question—Is the character of Victoria really you? 

“No,” I always tell them. “She has much better legs than I do.

A Jersey girl born and bred, Rosie Genova left her heart at the shore, which serves as the setting for much of her work. Her new series, the Italian Kitchen Mysteries, is informed by her deep appreciation for good food, her pride in her heritage, and her love of classic mysteries, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple. Her debut novel, Murder and Marinara, was released October 1. An English teacher by day and novelist by night, Rosie also writes women’s fiction as Rosemary DiBattista. She lives fifty miles from the nearest ocean  in central New Jersey, with her husband and two younger sons.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I can relate! Some bit of me gets into every character, even if it's just a favorite food. Only two members of my family read my work, though, so I am spared the comments you get. :)

Unknown said...

Ego? No. I would argue that imbuing our 1st-person characters with bits and pieces of ourselves is a way - a sometimes joyful but just as often painful way - to make that character come alive in ways that we, as authors, know, understand, and relate to. Uh, I believe that was once known as "grokking" the character, to co-opt the decades-old term coined by Robert Heinlein, no slouch at characters himself. If there is some or a lot of US in our character, then we live in (though not, hopefully, through) that character, and the character becomes more real: to us and, hopefully, to our readers. So revel in friends/family who hear you in your character's voice! It indicates no more than you have birthed a new life on page and screen!

Rosie said...

Writer Robyn--What a relief to know I'm not the only one. And here's hoping that your work finds an audience of more than two!

Unknown--What a lovely way to put it! And I suppose I am dating both of us when I say that I recognized your Heinlen reference. . .

Mirka Breen said...

Oh, yes.
Those who know me and have read my novel think it is biographical. Those who don't- accept that it's fiction.
They're both right, though the latter are more so. A writer is always there, but fiction is fiction. That's where you get to have better legs. ;=)

DMS said...

Awesome post! I think this one gives me a lot to think about. It was great to read about the response your family has to your books and characters and it makes sense. They know you well. I think we put parts of ourselves in some of our characters because we write what we know and we know some people will be able to connect to the characters because of those real traits.

Thanks for sharing. :)

Unknown said...

You've explained the idea so well. Teaching lit, I find that all students want to know is if the author was as weird, cool, and/or sexy as the characters. (It's usually either heck no, or in Hemingway's case, much more so.)

You do sound like Vic, which hit me when she says 'kiddo'!