(I’m in the aftermath of a mental breakdown this weekend. Reflection and introspection are the ways I cope, so you get this. Enjoy.)
“Write what you know,” the saying goes. It’s one of the seminal pieces of advice given to budding authors, and there’s a lot of truth in it. Obviously, it’s easier to write situations, characters, and stories that are familiar. More outlandish people and places need more thought, more planning. That’s why you see a lot of authors working on dramas, “slice of life” stories, recollections of childhood, etc. By contrast, fantasy and science fiction, two genres that imply outlandishness by their very nature, are very much niches. They just take more work to create.
Of course, it’s also easy to go too far in the other direction, to create something too familiar. Writing only what you know is great if you’re writing an autobiography, but you have to think outside the box for fiction. After all, the whole point of fiction is that it didn’t happen. And it most certainly didn’t happen to you.
In my works, I try to strike a balance. Obviously, as I write speculative fiction of various sorts, I have to do the research and contemplation of creating a setting unlike our present-day world. That has taken me down some strange and wonderful roads in the past decade, from the settling of the Americas (Otherworld), to paranormal sightings and hybrid DNA (Endless Forms), to the logistics of interstellar travel (Orphans of the Stars), to Biblical scholarship (Heirs of Divinity), to the nature of dreams (Before I Wake). It’s been a fun journey, I have to admit.
In this post, however, I want to talk about the other side: my characters. In particular, I want to look at a certain subset of characters who best illustrate writing what I know.
Birds of a feather
They’re all the same, when you get right down to it. A very common theme in my works is…well, me. Not as a self-insert or Mary Sue, but a character who embodies a part of me. I’ve written before how the main POV characters of the Otherworld series are all different facets of me, and that’s true to an extent. But there’s a broader correspondence, too.
Many, though not all, of the stories I write will, at some point, feature a character who represents how I see myself: an intelligent, luckless, socially awkward or rejected, insecure male. I’ll freely admit that I sometimes dwell on those characters, giving them more screen time and deeper subplots. That’s because I’m writing what I know. I can get in their heads better, because they’re closer to who I am. Many of them also end up with “good” endings, and you can call that wish fulfillment if you like.
In contrast to these self-portraits, I’ll often have a character who is, in essence, the man I wish I could be. This character is still highly intelligent (I’m not good at writing below-average individuals), but he’s not necessarily a genius. Despite that, he has the confidence I lack, and he’s often in much better shape physically, socially, or financially. He also gets plenty of time as the center of attention, and he often has conflicts with the other sort of self-insert, but they’re often of the “friendly rivalry” sort.
With that in mind, I’m going to go through some of my works, whether novels, novellas, short stories, or the major series so dear to my heart. For my own peace of mind, you see.
Otherworld is where I first noticed this tendency. As it’s by far my largest series, that makes a lot of sense. Alex has been one of the central characters since the beginning, and he’s probably the most transparently like myself. He’s your stereotypical geek, caught in a bad situation due to what he believes is his own bad luck and poor choices. (About the only place where we disagree is that he’s into anime and manga.)
Over the many, many stories of the Otherworld series, Alex certainly grows the most of any character. He already suffered from some depression issues even before he and his team were accidentally sucked into another world, but the rigors of living there didn’t help at all. He wasn’t used to physical exertion, he didn’t think he could learn another language, and he knew he was a poorer fit for the strange land of Vistaan than he was even in America. Witnessing the death of a native friend broke him, as he would tell you. At least he knows what caused it. Some of us aren’t so lucky.
Alex’s rival, of a sort, is Jeff. He’s still the nerdy type, and he’s far from outspoken, but he knows his role, and he excels at it. Jeff is the linguist of the group, and only really part of that group because they needed more interpreters. Going to another planet scares him as much as anyone else, yet he manages to keep it together.
These two grow close as time goes on, as they see themselves as similar enough that they could be friends. But their fates diverge. Jeff is seduced by a native woman; Alex assumes none of them would give him the time of day, the same as their counterparts here. Alex’s best claims to fame out there are determining their latitude and becoming a math tutor, while Jeff works on decoding the language of the ancient race who may have built the device that brought them there in the first place. In every case, you see the dichotomy: Jeff has humility, but Alex has self-loathing. Who I want to be, who I believe I am.
The Hidden Hills series is a little like Otherworld. Despite only being two books so far, and four total, there’s a lot of character development packed into those 1300 pages. And I made the same character decisions, just transplanting them into the pseudo-fantasy setting.
For these novels, we have Asho and Gallan. One is a tradesman, working as an apprentice smith under his father. The other is a junior scholar. Both are well aware of their corresponding places in the feudal-era society they inhabit, but they take those places much differently.
Gallan can comport himself well. He can talk to the nobility. He can do research. He knows how to manage, delegate, and lead. In the underground lair of the so-called wizards, he becomes the man in charge even before he becomes a man. Asho, meanwhile, never feels right. He doubts himself when it comes to building the machines of the wizards. He sometimes feels that even his little sister, only eight years old at the start of the first book, is more useful in the circle that he and his friends have created. And he’s scared to death when his mother works out an arranged marriage on his behalf.
These two aren’t the perfect metaphor that Otherworld provides, but they stick out to me. I’ve written two characters, one of whom is everything I want: a leader, a scholar, an inventor. The other? He doesn’t know what he wants to be, but he’ll be happy if he just doesn’t disappoint anybody.
Orphans of the Stars
My newest release, Innocence Reborn, doesn’t offer quite the same set of characters. I consciously tried to avoid the trap I’m describing here. Still, Levi is very much an idealized version of myself. He has the take-charge attitude I long for, though he also suffers from bouts of indecision and doubt.
Probably the closest to my self-image is Mika. Odd, as I don’t connect with my female characters to the same extent, but she shares a few of my demons. By the fourth book (which I’m currently writing), she’s deep in depression, and already past the breaking point. Not great for a fifteen-year-old girl. Not great for the 36-year-old man who first imagined her, either.
It’s harder to see, but this introspection has let me realize the similarities, and how I’ve been unconsciously steering Mika into more of a catharsis role as the series has progressed. Now that I know, I’m not sure what that will mean for her character development, but time will tell.
All the rest
My other works don’t possess the contrast, but one trope or the other almost always appears. I’ll treat the rest of the set together here, just for interests of space.
The Linear Cycle, being an apocalyptic fantasy, doesn’t have much time for doubters. Everyone has to work together to fight back the horde and keep society from falling apart. Still, Tod has a lot of the same qualities as, say, Alex. He’s a social outcast for a different reason, one specific to the setting, but it leaves him in much the same predicament.
Before I Wake‘s protagonist Jay fits the “insecure and inward” mold to some extent. As I wrote this novel following some deeply personal tragedy, I can only chalk that up to self-insertion. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to write very original characters, and the plot was, to me, more important.
In Nocturne, Shade is very much an authorial voice, at least in terms of his philosophy. As a person, he may represent some part of me, probably the part that feels like I’ve been rejected by society. Other than that, he’s like me only in his drive and his love for his ideals. But that’s still a lot.
Fallen, my free novella, follows Lucas, a tech who’s just been fired, who knows he’s a pariah because of his lack of faith. Well, that’s just me in a nutshell. (Okay, except the “getting fired” part. You have to get hired first.) You’ll get no argument from me there—it was mostly intentional. And Fallen might be the closest thing I’ve written to a personal fantasy. Meeting a perfect, indeed angelic, woman and falling in love with her? In late 2017, I would’ve killed for that. In 2020, I can say I got what I wanted. Next time I write a fantasy that’s going to come true, I’ll make sure it has a longer ending.
Most of the others are longer stretches. You could make a case that Dirk from Modern Minds fits the “how I see myself” mold in some fashion. You could also say the same for Luis from Heirs of Divinity…if I ever put that one out. And the Occupation trilogy almost pulls off the twofer. Main character Raneph is a Shade-like idealist and revolutionary, while humble helper Anit just wants to learn all he can without rocking the boat. (Or getting magically bound to the bed by his lover, but that’s another post.)
This has been a long post, and I’m trying hard not to make it even longer. But I needed to write it, whether anyone ever reads it or not. And if you’ve ever wondered why some of my characters are the way they are, this is my reasoning. They’re me. In some form, they’re always me. Because that’s what I know.