Someone I know, who hasn’t read any of my work, asked me something rather rude a while back when they found out I wrote romance novels, and it’s been on my mind ever since. “So which one of your characters is you?”
Plenty of authors (especially of the Old White Male variety and/or in so-called “classics”) write themselves into their novels blatantly. Hence the joke, What do you call a male Mary Sue? The protagonist.
But this question, in the particular tone of voice it was delivered in, was a piercing arrow that I had to pretend didn’t hurt me. The assumption that, because I am a woman writing romance, my heroines were all somehow “me” struck me as crass. It’s not an uncommon attitude towards writers in the genre–that we’re all lonely single women or unfulfilled housewives who write escapist fantasy lives for themselves.
Here’s the thing I wish I could explain to these critics and naysayers: All of my characters are, at least a little bit, me.
I give one character my hair color, and a different one my eyes. Another gets my need to hug something (a person or a pillow or a stuffed animal) when I’m really upset. Someone else gets my sarcasm, yet another character gets my tendency to stammer when I’m flustered.
One character likes yoga, another likes running, quite a few like to sing in the shower. One wishes she had enough time to really, really devote herself to improving her art instead of dabbling.
They’re all me.
At the same time, they’re all someone else, too, because the best way to avoid the dreaded self-insert character is to mix up your own traits, those feelings and drives you know so well as a part of you, with observations and knowledge taken from other people in your life. A close friend, who has read my work, said she can see where I stitched together myself with other people in Paul, the hero of my What We Need series. But he’s only a little bit me. (Which is good, because there’s no way anyone would mistake me for a six-four man who can play piano. I am none of those things.)
Fortunately, splitting up pieces of your soul for writing doesn’t involve painful and horrific sacrifices–the Horcrux metaphor doesn’t hold up that far–but with conscious effort (in rewrites, when necessary!) any character that you find is too “you” can be dialed back, and any character that feels flat can be fleshed out with a little piece of your soul, to give them authenticity they may be lacking.