Recently I wrote a short story that was an account of a camping trip. The protagonist, Amanda, was brought along on the spur of the moment by a friend who was a frequent traveller. Amanda was not, and was well out of her comfort zone.
As I was intending to enter this story in a competition, I asked my mother to read it…to see if she had any suggestions for its improvement. Her first question was the one above – ‘are you Amanda?’
I didn’t answer at the time, except perhaps in the vaguest terms, but the answer is – I think – fairly obvious. As a writer, I bring some of my own experiences to each and every character I write. Some to a greater or lesser extent of course, but to write a character without putting a little of myself in it would be impossible.
Take the example of Amanda…she represents a part of myself that used to hate camping – probably from early childhood until my early 20’s. Then there’s her best friend Chris(tine), who is completely at home with the outdoors and frequently goes camping. She represents much better my current attitude. Of course in the real world, these two sides of myself could never have co-existed…but in fiction, anything is possible.
Obviously if every character is based on yourself, the fictional world you create will be very one-dimensional. In the story I am referencing, the girls are accompanied on their camping trip by two ‘typical Australian blokes’, ‘Macca’ and ‘Dave’. These are in actuality based on a composite of several male friends with whom I often go camping, but I cannot escape the fact that they too, must speak with my voice.
I hope I’m making sense…what I’m trying to say is that regardless of how much research goes into the creation of supplementary characters – no matter how well you know their background, their motivations, their appearance, their speech patterns – in the end, when you place them in an unfamiliar situation, your next question is going to be: ‘what will they do or say next?’ Unless you actually go to the effort of contacting your inspiration for the character and asking, your answer will always be, ‘If I were them…’