I’ve been asked this question a number of times about the protagonist in my novel Absolution. I doubt this is an unusual question for fiction writers, especially when a major character shares the author’s gender, place and time. And it’s a question that can be asked in several ways, such as, how much of you is reflected in Maggie’s character? Or, are any of her experiences your experiences?
Some fiction writers are more autobiographical than others, Thomas Wolfe famously so. But I’m not, and my short answer to such a question usually goes like this: Maggie grew up on a cotton farm in south Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. I grew up in Miami, Florida, and the Washington, D.C. area. Hardly similar worlds. But the truer answer to that question is more complex, and it’s an important question, for it goes to the heart of how a work of fiction is created.
For me, the paradox of writing fiction is that I am ALL of my characters and I am NONE of them.
Here’s something I wrote in an earlier post titled “The Alchemy of Fiction”:
Most of us understand alchemy as the medieval attempt to transmute ordinary metals into gold. Writing fiction involves its own kind of transmutation (even if the “gold” is seldom the monetary kind!). The task for fiction writers is to take the elemental stuff of our lives—experiences, people we’ve known, things we’ve heard or learned in school, places we’ve been and, yes, our research—and turn these into human stories, even though our characters may in no way resemble us. Otherwise how does a man create a believable female character, an American writer create a Swede or Pakistani?
In my next series of posts titled “Backstories,” I’ll be looking at how I’ve used some of the “elemental stuff” of my own life in Absolution to create places I’ve never lived, situations I’ve never known and characters who aren’t at all like me. Because that’s what we fiction writers do. And in the doing of it, we sometimes tap parts of our selves we’d forgotten. Such is the magic and mystery of our craft.
Coming up: “The Boy with Sad Eyes”