There’s an adage in writing: Write what you know. Anyone who writes has heard it… ad nauseum. When you’re writing a character-based novel, what you know quickly becomes who you know.
The question I’m most frequently asked is: “How much is your main character based on yourself?” As a standard answer, I always say: Claire is me. This isn’t entirely accurate. When I first started the novel, I knew nothing about character development. I just sat down and wrote. To make life easier, I based the main character on myself, a classic rookie mistake. Ah, well, you can’t get much more rookie than I was.
But the truth is a bit more gray. She is me if I had time to reflect and come up with the best way to feel under extreme duress, if I had a backspace button on my words, if I had hours to ponder a sentence. Does that mean, then, that’s she’s fictional? Not exactly. She’s more like the best parts of me. Her relationships are different from mine, but her role in them is largely the same. She’s still a mother of two girls, working part time, trying to juggle it all.
After answering that one, I’m usually asked: “Who are the men?” This question makes me laugh. In the book, Greg, Claire’s husband, is moody, withdrawn, and secretive. Drew, her friend, is nearly perfect. Of course, I know only one man in my life intimately – I’m married to him! Is he Greg or Drew? Again, it’s a gray truth: he’s both. Greg is my husband’s faults exaggerated to become an issue, whereas in real life, they are not. Drew is all the wonderful parts of my husband expanded and brought to the forefront. Highlighted in a way that I’m sure I forget to notice in real life.
If I had to guess, I’d think this is true for all writers. We take parts of our lives and make them bigger, bolder, and more interesting. We take conversations and interactions that occur in real life, then spin them to take on a different meaning or tone. I feel bad for everyone I know now, but I’m not sure I can turn it off. A good example of this is, in Thought I Knew You, Greg and Claire have a fight. It’s a What’s Wrong/Nothing fight, a common avoidable argument. It’s used in the book to highlight the way they keep missing each other and their inability to connect on any level, yet both with the desire to do so. It’s used to show the fissure in their relationship. In real life, I’ve had this argument with my husband, and it means nothing. In real life, it means that one of us is stomping around, ticked off about something that has nothing to do with the other, and one of us gets tired of it. But that’s barely interesting. As a writer, my job is to take relatable situations and give them meaning, expose a relationship crack. Suddenly, an innocuous argument takes on an unsettling tone.
I’ll probably never base a character on myself again. I’m not interesting enough to warrant two books. But I will probably always build in conversations I have, people I meet, and interactions I observe. So if we chat in real life, don’t be surprised if you later read about it in a book, with a completely new spin. My mind is always writing.