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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: Separated At Birth

October 7, 2010

In John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, the main character Ruth is a bestselling author.  It’s noted in the book that in all of her books there’s always one character based on her and another based on her best friend.

Working on my latest opus (note sarcasm) Chet Finley vs. The Machines of Fate, it occurred to me that the main characters are pretty much all based on characters I’ve written before.  That bothers me because as an artiste, I should be expanding my boundaries and horizons and whatnot, pushing the envelope and not just doing the same thing over and over again.  But then again since nothing I have is really published, you could also think of it as I’m just trying to perfect my formula.

The main character, the eponymous Chet Finley, is in the same mold as most of my “heroes” for some time.  I refer to them as “good-natured dumbasses.”  They’re usually kind of shy, kind of doormats, and kind of not the brightest people around.  (Except for this one, who is the brightest person around–supposedly, though her track record kind of belies that.)  Frost Devereaux in Where You Belong is another example of this in that he’s quiet, lets other people tell him what to do, and wasn’t a straight-A student.  So is this guy.  And this guy.  And this guy–though he has a good reason!  And him, though he doesn’t have as good of a reason.  Although again you could see this all as evolving the formula.

Really in 2005 was when I sort of bucked that trend a bit.  In The Best Light, nature photographer Frank Hemsky is jaded and bitter most of the time.  Then in The Changing Seasons (2005) I turned that evolving formula on its head by making the character a selfish cad, though he sort of redeems himself at the end.  So I’m not exactly a one trick pony.  But still, there are as you can see plenty of examples of that.

Also, I’ve noted all of my villains seem to be made in the same smarmy, Goldfinger-type mode.  This is probably because my favorite villain is Grand Admiral Thrawn in Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars books.  This is because he wasn’t a bumbling dumbass.  He was smart and won more than he lost.  He would have won a lot more if not for the phenomenal luck of our heroes.  So generally I try to make my villains more in that mode in that they aren’t stupid, cackling dopes; they’re more likely to be stroking a cat on their laps.  The best example of this is the evil goddess Isis in the Scarlet Knight stories, especially this one and this one.  Though this one also features the evil Russian billionaire Sergei Bykov who kidnaps our hero’s child and the renegade witch Sophie Joubert.  They’re all somewhat the same, except as a goddess (and an evil one) Isis likes to fuck with people more.

Anyway, if you read enough of an author’s books maybe you notice a pattern like that.  Since I’ve read all of the aforementioned John Irving’s novels, I’ve noticed similarities in some characters.  In a few of them there’s a high-strung girl who bullies the smaller, weaker male lead character.  See, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Until I Find You just to name a few off the top of my head.  Of course in Philip Roth’s books there’s always a Philip Roth character, sometimes the author himself or sometimes using a thinly-veiled surrogate like Nathan Zuckerman.  I’m sure you Phantom Readers can think of your own examples.

I think the source of this is that as they say, we “write what we know” and there’s nothing you know better than yourself.  Or at least your self-image of yourself.  I mean I probably think of myself as a good-natured dumbass, though I think other people are more likely to call me an antisocial jerk or just a hideous creep.  For instance, just read my entries.  Don’t I sound like a good-natured dumbass?  Kind of a slightly more articulate and less disingenuous Sarah Palin with my folksy wisdom and charm?  I can also do bitter and ironic, like a homeless man’s Jon Stewart.  I would seriously struggle though to try and sound learned like one of those snobby guys you always see at cocktail parties in the movies, especially 19th Century parties where the “gentlemen” are sitting around the fire with brandy and cigars.  I’d also struggle to do  Glenn Beck-type Tea Party rants because I actually have a brain.  (Seriously, I graduated magna cum laude!  From a Division II school, but it still counts!)

Anyway, the point is that we all have a “voice” based on who we are and how we see the world and thus that’s probably why if you write enough stories, a lot of your characters will seem very similar.  Though it probably does help to try and shake things up a little bit.  Like in the “Meet Cute” story I posted a few posts ago, the main character Tom is generally a good-natured dumbass, but he’s also kind of a cad, though that was kind of unintentional on my part.  Still, it’s a slight bit of change in the formula, which helps to keep things fresh.

Really to think of it another way, I don’t mind if a band changes their sound a little from album to album, but I really hate it if they change too much.  I don’t want to hear Counting Crows or Death Cab for Cutie trying to rock out, because they’re not going to be that good at it.  And I don’t want Coldplay trying to be all “arty” like they think they’re the Beatles or something.  You’re not the Beatles!  That doesn’t mean you have to just keep doing the same thing over and over again, but don’t stray too far from your strengths.

And in case you haven’t noticed, rambling semi-coherently is another of my strengths.

There will be another entry at some point in the future.  When?  I don’t know.  Follow me on Twitter and Facebook and you’ll always know when!


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  1. I agree. Can you figure out with what?

    Seriously, I do think all of a writer’s characters would probably have something in common, even if its a minor trait. Just seems to happen that way and I don’t see a problem with it. But who the hell am I to know? I’ve only finished one novel so far and the only things I’ve had published are flash fiction pieces.

  2. I can imagine what you would agree with.

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