So “Black Dogs,” my first novel, was on sale at Anthrocon, and I gave a copy to my mother since I happened to be up there, and awhile later she called me and uttered a phrase that I suspect no author on earth wants to hear–“This is you, isn’t it?”
I love my mother dearly. I am sure her intent was not to make me cringe in my chair or weakly say “Well…not really…I mean…it’s not…quite…uh…”
This is particularly awkward when you know that book two has sex, bondage, and prolonged and grisly torture, and that your mother’s going to be reading it with you in mind as the main character. Ouch. If they ever had an Afterschool Special to cover this situation, I must’ve missed it. Mom’s deeply cool, but one still feels a little…exposed.
The thing is, she’s not wrong, precisely. All characters get dredged up out of what you are, or what you want to be, or what you’re afraid of, or at the very least, who you can pretend to be. (Well, all my characters. I can’t presume to speak for other authors.) The esteemable
once pointed out that my comics have a distinct tendency towards a stocky heroine with no pants who is unrelentingly rational in the face of madness, and yeah, that’s me, even if I don’t qualify as stocky these days, and I’m pretty good about the pants. But I’m everybody else in there, too. Boneclaw Mother is the dirty old woman I hope to someday become, and Jhalm is that burning sense of condescending self-righteousness that I attempt to squelch,* and if I was ever going to be a villain, I would be a pleasant, efficient, ruthless one, like Vade, and Sadrao is every dog I ever loved, walking upright and carrying a sword.
Still, I can’t even say that’s the case in Black Dogs. It’d be more comfortable to make that claim, but denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. I wrote the first draft at seventeen, and I wrote what I knew. Most of what I knew was about being seventeen and confused and horny and out of my depth and just putting one foot in front of the other and a whole lot of whistling in the dark. So the heroine isn’t me–not the thirty-year-old woman–but if you put her in a room with myself of thirteen years ago, the only way to tell them apart would be the clothes. Hell, we’ve even got the same tattoo, although mine came after hers, a definite case of life imitating art.
I suppose we’re all the heroes of our early work. That’s why Mary Sue runs rampant. The urge to play up our good points rather than our flaws is strong. (If there’s any redeeming quality to Black Dogs, I suspect it’s that the main character is not actually the hero of the story, and does not save the day, and in fact mostly just muddles along with a lot of help from her friends. At one early point in the book, she says “My incompetence will surprise you,” and that pretty much holds true.)
Perhaps it’s simply that it was my very first novel, and I had not yet learned to cover my tracks.
It’s easier to have strangers read your books. They can’t look at it with beady little eyes and see you hiding between the pages, and even if they could, they wouldn’t care. I think it was Robin McKinley who said how embarrassed she was by an early book, by how much of her adolescent self it revealed (it was “The Blue Sword” I think…) and I can sympathize, even though I loved the book.
It gets easier as you write more, I think. There’s a whole lot of me in Digger, but nobody ever looks at it and goes “You’re Digger!” because I’m really not. She’s tougher than I am, more logical than I am, and has less imagination. I say a great many things that she would never say, and she says a few that I wouldn’t either. You learn to ask “What would she do?” instead of “What would I do, in this situation?” (I think RPGs are great practice for this, frankly. Mouse the samurai and Severl the thief were two of the best writing teachers I ever had, because ideally you learn to be an internally consistent other. I can’t really explain it more clearly–either you know exactly what I’m talking about, or you need to go find a good GM for a couple of months.)
Mind you, my characters also frequently channel my grandmother, but that’s probably a post for another day…
*Oddly enough, he’s the character closest down the road from all my favorite RPG characters. The it-is-right-because-I-am-doing-it rises very naturally to the surface, and works equally well for paladins, samurai and assassins. Disturbingly similar to the mindset required to be a forum admin.