Every writer faces this conundrum: your success hinges on your ability to create impressions that provoke emotions in the people who read your work, so you need feedback from a large sample of readers to gauge the effect of your writing. Without feedback, you have no way to calibrate the impact of your efforts and thus no way to hone your skills. This is why writers’ workshops are so popular; they bring a bunch of budding authors together to serve as one another’s practice audience. The major drawback to this solution is that a sample composed of fellow authorly aspirants may not be representative of the audience you ultimately hope your work will appeal to.
Whether or not they attend a workshop, all writers avail themselves of the ready-made trial audience comprised of their family and friends, a method which inevitably presents them with yet another conundrum: anyone who knows the author won’t be able to help mixing her up with her protagonists. The danger isn’t just that the feedback you get will be contaminated with moral judgments and psychological assessments; you also risk offending people you care about who will have a tough time not assuming identify with characters who bear even the most superficial resemblance to them. And of course you risk giving everyone the wrong idea about the type of person you are and the type of things you get up to.
My first experience of being mistaken for one of my characters occurred soon after I graduated from college. A classmate and fellow double-major in psychology and anthropology asked to read a story I’d mentioned I was working on. Desperate for feedback, I emailed it to her right away. The next day I opened my inbox to find a two-page response to the story which treated everything described in it as purely factual and attempted to account for the emotional emptiness I’d demonstrated in my behavior and commentary. I began typing my own response explaining I hadn’t meant the piece to be taken as a memoir—hence the fictional name—and pointing to sections she’d missed that were meant to explain why the character was emotionally empty (I had deliberately portrayed him that way), but as I composed the message I found myself getting angry. As a writer of fiction, you trust your readers to understand that what you’re writing is, well, fiction, regardless of whether real people and real events figure into it to some degree. I felt like that trust had been betrayed. I was being held personally responsible for behaviors and comments that for all she knew I had invented whole-cloth for the sake of telling a good story.
To complicate matters, the events in the story my classmate was responding to were almost all true. And yet it still seemed tremendously unfair for anyone to have drawn conclusions about me based on it. The simplest way to explain this is to point out that you have an entirely different set of goals if you’re telling a story about yourself to a friend than you do if you’re telling a story about a fictional character to anyone who might read it—even if they’re essentially the same story. And your goals affect your choice of not only which events to include, but which aspects of the situation and which traits of the characters to focus on. Add in even a few purely fabricated elements and you can dramatically alter the readers’ impression of the characters.
Another way to think about this is to imagine how boring fiction would be if all authors knew they would be associated with and held accountable for everything their protagonists do or say. This is precisely why it’s so important to avoid mistaking writers for their characters, and why writers feel betrayed when that courtesy isn’t afforded to them. Unfortunately, that courtesy is almost never afforded to them. Indeed, if you call readers out for conflating you with your characters, many of them will double down on their mistake. As writers who feel our good names should be protected under the cover of the fiction label, we have to accept that human psychology is constantly operating to poke giant holes in that cover.
Let’s try an experiment: close your eyes for a moment and try to picture Jay Gatsby’s face in your mind’s eye. If you’re like me, you imagined one of two actors who played Gatsby in the movie versions, either Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford. The reason these actors come so readily to mind is that imagining a character’s face from scratch is really difficult. What does Queequeq look like? Melville describes him in some detail; various illustrators have given us their renditions; a few actors have portrayed him, albeit never in a film you’d bother watching a second time. Since none of these movies is easily recallable, I personally have to struggle a bit to call an image of him to mind. What’s true of characters’ physical appearances is also true of nearly everything else about them. Going from words on a page to holistic mental representations of human beings takes effort, and even if you put forth that effort the product tends to be less than perfectly vivid and stable.
In lieu of a well-casted film, the easiest shortcut to a solid impression is to substitute the author you know for the character you don’t. Actors are also mistaken for their characters with disturbing frequency, or at least assumed to possess similar qualities. (“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”) To be fair, actors are chosen for roles they can convincingly pull off, and authors, wittingly or otherwise, infuse their characters with tinctures of their own personalities. So it’s not like you won’t ever find real correspondences.
You can nonetheless count on your perception of the similarities being skewed toward gross exaggeration. This is owing to a phenomenon social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. The basic idea is that, at least in individualist cultures, people tend to attribute behavior to the regular inclinations of the person behaving as opposed to more ephemeral aspects of the situation: the driver who cut you off is inconsiderate and hasty, not rushing to work because her husband’s car broke down and she had to drop him off first. One of the classic experiments on this attribution bias had subjects estimate people’s support for Fidel Castro based on an essay they’d written about him. The study, conducted by Edward Jones and Victor Harris at the height of the Cold War, found that even if people were told that the author was assigned a position either for or against Castro based on a coin toss they still assumed more often than not that the argument reflected the author’s true beliefs.
The implication of Jones and Harris’s findings is that even if an author tries to assure everyone that she was writing on behalf of a character for the purpose of telling a story, and not in any way trying to use that character as a mouthpiece to voice some argument or express some sentiment, readers are still going to assume she agrees with everything her character thinks and says. As readers, we can’t help giving too little weight to the demands of the story and too much weight to the personality of the author. And writers can’t even count on other writers not to be biased in this way. In 2001, Eric Hansen, Charles Kimble, and David Biers conducted a series of experiments that instructed people to treat a fellow study participant in either a friendly or unfriendly way and then asked them to rate each other on friendliness. Even though they all got the same type of instructions, and hence should have appreciated the nature of the situational influences, they still attributed unfriendliness in someone else to that person’s disposition. Of course, their own unfriendliness they attributed to the instructions.
One of the theories for why we Westerners fall prey to the fundamental attribution error is that creating dual impressions of someone’s character takes a great deal of effort. Against the immediate and compelling evidence of actual behavior, we have nothing but an abstract awareness of the possibility that the person may behave differently in different circumstances. The ease of imagining a person behaving similarly even without situational factors like explicit instructions makes it seem more plausible, thus creating the illusion that we can somehow tell whether someone following instructions, performing a scene, or writing on behalf of a fictional character is being sincere—and naturally enough we nearly always think they are.
The underlying principle here—that we’re all miserly with our cognition—is bad news for writers for yet another reason. Another classic study, this one conducted by Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues, was reported in an article titled “You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read,” which for a fiction writer sounds rather heartening at first. The experiment asked participants to determine prison sentences for defendants in imaginary court cases based on statements that were color-coded to signal they were either true or false. Even though some of the statements were marked as false, they still affected the length of the sentences, and the effect grew even more pronounced when the participants were distracted or pressed for time.
The researchers interpret these findings to mean that believing a statement is true is crucial to comprehending it. To understand the injunction against thinking of a pink elephant, you have to imagine the very pink elephant you’re not supposed to think about. Only after comprehension is achieved can you then go back and tag a statement as false. In other words, we automatically believe what we hear or read and only afterward, with much cognitive effort, go back and revise any conclusions we arrived at based on the faulty information. That’s why sentences based on rushed assessments were more severe—participants didn’t have enough time to go back and discount the damning statements that were marked as false.
If those of us who write fiction assume that our readers rely on the cognitive shortcut of substituting us for our narrators or protagonists, Hansen et al’s and Gilbert’s findings suggest yet another horrifying conundrum. The more the details of our stories immerse readers in the plot, the more difficulty they’re going to have taking into account the fictional nature of the behaviors being enacted in each of the scenes. So the more successful you are in writing your story, the harder it’s going to be to convince anyone you didn’t do the things you so expertly led them to envision you doing. And I suspect, even if readers know as a matter of fact you probably didn’t enact some of the behaviors described in the story, their impressions of you will still be influenced by a sort of abstract association between you and the character. When a reader seems to be confusing me with my characters, I like to pose the question, “Did you think Stephen King wanted to kill his family when you read The Shining?” A common answer I get is, “No, but he is definitely creepy.” (After reading King’s nonfiction book On Writing, I personally no longer believe he’s creepy.)
When people talk to me about stories of mine they’ve read, they almost invariably use “you” as a shorthand for the protagonist. At least, that’s what I hope they’re doing—in many cases, though, they betray no awareness of the story as a story. To them, it’s just a straightforward description of some real events. Of course, when you press them they allow for some creative license; they’ll acknowledge that maybe it didn’t all happen exactly as it’s described. But that meager allowance still tends to leave me pretty mortified. Once, I even had a family member point to some aspects of a character that were recognizably me and suggest that they undermined the entire story because they made it impossible for her to imagine the character as anyone but me. In her mind, my goal in writing was to disguise myself behind the character, but I’d failed to suppress my true feelings. I tried to explain that I hadn’t tried to hide anything; I’d included elements of my own life deliberately because they served what were my actual goals. I don’t think she was convinced. At any rate, I never got any good feedback from her because she simply didn’t understand what I was really trying to do with the story. And ever since I’ve been taking a reader’s use of “you” to refer to the protagonist as an indication that I’ll need to go elsewhere for any useful commentary.
I’m pretty sure all fiction writers incorporate parts of their own life stories into their work. I’d even go so far as to posit that, at least for literary writers, creating plots and characters is more a matter of rearranging bits and pieces of real events and real people’s sayings and personalities into a coherent sequence with a beginning, middle, and end—a dilemma, resolution, and outcome—than it is of conjuring scenes and actors out of the void. But even a little of this type of rearranging is enough to make any judgments about the author seem pretty silly to anyone who can put the true details back together in their original order. The problem is the author is often the only one who knows what parts are true and how they actually happened, so you’re left having to simply ask her what she really thinks, what she really feels, and what she’s really done. For everyone else, the story only seems like it can tell them something when they already know whatever it is it might tell them. So they end up being tricked into making the leap from bits and pieces of recognizable realities to an assumption of general truthiness.
Even the greatest authors get mixed up in people’s minds with their characters. People think Rabbit Angstrom and John Updike are the same person—or at least that the character is some kind of distillation of the author. Philip Roth gets mistaken for both Nathan Zuckerman (though Roth seems to have wanted that to happen) and Mickey Sabbath, two very different characters. I even wonder if readers assume some kinship between Hilary Mantel and her fictional version of Thomas Cromwell. So I have to accept that my goal with this essay is ridiculously ambitious. As long as I write, people are going to associate me with my narrators and protagonists to one degree or another.
Nevertheless, I’m going to do something that most writers are loath to do. I’m going to retrace the steps that went into the development of my latest story so everyone can see what I mean when I say I’m responding to the demands of the story or making characters serve the goals of the story. By doing so, I hope to show how quickly real life character models and real life events get muddled, and why there could never be anything like a straightforward method for drawing conclusions about the author based on his or her characters.
The story is titled The Fire Hoarder and it follows a software engineer nearing forty who decides to swear off his family and friends for an indefinite amount of time because he’s impatient with their complacent mediocrity and feels beset by their criticisms, which he perceives as expressions of envy and insecurity. My main inspirations were a series of conversations with a recently divorced friend about the detrimental effects of marriage and parenthood on a man’s identity, a beautiful but somehow eerie nature preserve in my hometown where I fell into the habit of taking weekly runs, and the HBO series True Detective.
The newly divorced friend, whom I’ve known for almost twenty years, became a bit of a fitness maniac over this past summer. Mainly through grueling bike rides, he lost all the weight he’d put on since what he considered his physical prime, going from something like 235 to 190 pounds in the span of few months. Once, in the midst of a night of drinking, he began apologizing for all the time he’d been locked away, gaining weight, doing nothing with his life. He said he felt like he’d let me down, but I have to say it hadn’t ever occurred to me to take it personally. Months later, in the process of writing my story, I realized I needed some kind of personal drama in the protagonist’s life, something he would already be struggling with when the instigating events of the plot occurred.
So my divorced friend, who turned 39 this summer (I’m just turning 37 myself), ended up serving as a partial model for two characters, the protagonist who is determined to get in better shape, and the friend who betrays him by being too comfortable and lazy in his family life. He shows up again in the words of yet another character, a police detective and tattoo artist who tries to convince the protagonist that single life is better than married life. Though, as one of the other models for that character, an actual police detective and tattoo artist, was quick to notice, the cop in the story is based on a few other people as well.
My own true detective meets the protagonist at a bar after the initial scene. The problem I faced with this chapter was that the main character had already decided to forswear socializing. I handled this by describing the relationship between the characters as one that didn’t include any kind of intimate revelations or profound exchanges—except when it did (like in this particular scene). “Oh man,” read the text I got from the real detective, “I hope I am not as shallow of a friend as Ray is to Russell?” And this is a really good example of how responding to the demands of the story can give the wrong impression to anyone looking for clues about the author’s true thoughts and feelings. (He later assured me he was just busting my balls.)
Russell’s name was originally Steve; I changed it late in the writing process to serve as an homage to Rustin Cohle, one of the lead characters in True Detective. Before I ever even began watching the show, one of my brothers, the model for Russell’s brother Nick, compared me to Rust. He meant it as a compliment, but a complicated one. Like all brothers, our relationship is complimentary, but complicated. A few of the things my brother has said that have annoyed me over the past few years show up in the story, but whereas this type of commentary is subsumed in our continuing banter, which is almost invariably good-humored, it really gets under Russell’s skin. In a story, one of the goals is to give texture to the characters’ backgrounds, and another goal is often to crank up the tension. So I often include more serious versions of petty and not-so-memorable spats I have with friends, lovers, and family members in my plots and character bios. And when those same friends, lovers, and family members read the resulting story I have to explain that it doesn’t mean what they think it means. (I haven’t gotten any texts from my brother about the story yet.) I won't go into the details of my love life here; suffice it to say writers pretty much have to be prepared for their wives or girlfriends to flip out whenever they read one of their stories featuring fictional wives or girlfriends.
I was initially put off by True Detective for the same reasons I have a hard time stomaching any hardboiled fiction. The characters use the general foulness of the human race to justify their own appalling behavior. “The world needs bad men,” Rust says to his partner. “They keep the other bad men from the door.” The conceit is that life is so ugly and people are so evil that we should all just walk around taking ourselves far too seriously as we bemoan the tragedy of existence. At one point, Rust tells some fellow detectives about M-theory, an outgrowth of superstring theory. The show tries to make it sound tragic and horrifying. But the tone of the scene is perfectly nonsensical. Why should thinking about extra dimensions be like rubbing salt in our existential wounds? The view of the world that emerges is as embarrassingly adolescent as it is screwball.
But much of the dialogue in the show is magnificent, and the scene-by-scene progression of the story is virtuoso. When I first watched it, the conversations about marriage and family life resonated with the discussions I’d been having with my divorced friend over the summer. And Rust in particular forces us to ask what becomes of a man who finds the common rituals and diversions to be resoundingly devoid of meaning. The entire mystery of the secret cult at the center of the plot, with all its crude artifacts made of sticks, really only succeeds as a prop for Rust’s struggle with his own character. He needs something to obsess over. But the bad guy at the end, the monster at the end of the dream, is destined to disappoint. I included my own true detective in The Fire Hoarder so there would be someone who could explain why not finding such monsters is worse than finding them. And I went on to explore what a character like Rust, obsessive, brilliant, skeptical, curious, and haunted would do in the absence of a bad guy to hunt down. But my guy wouldn’t take himself so seriously.
If you add in the free indirect style of narration I enjoy in the works of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, and others, along with some of the humor you find in their novels, you have the technique I used, the tone I tried to strike, and my approach to dealing with the themes. (The revelation at the end that one of the characters is acting as the narrator is a trick I’m most familiar with from McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.) The ideal reader response to my story would focus on these issues of style and technique, and insofar as the comments took on topics like the vividness of the characters or the feelings they inspired it would do so as if they were entities entirely separate from me and the people I know and care about.
But I know that would be asking a lot. The urge to read stories, the pleasure we take in them, is a product of the same instincts that make us fascinated with gossip. And we have a nasty tendency to try to find hidden messages in what we read, as though we were straining to hear the whispers we can’t help suspecting are about us--and not exactly flattering. So, as frustrated as I get with people who get the wrong idea, I usually come around to just being happy there are some people out there who are interested enough in what I’m doing to read my fiction.