How Much of Myself Should I Put Into My Novel(s)?

This probably the main question I’ve been asking myself since beginning my MFA program in the fall. As an over-thinker after many months of considering this question I can now make pretty strong arguments for both sides.

Sometimes I think that, being a writer means putting yourself in many different perspectives. Writing just from personal experience would be repetitive and potentially boring. Does the world need more books about upper-middle class, cis-gendered, straight, white girls? Is there less creativity involved when writing from experience?

But then on the flip side, the most popular piece of writing advice is to write what you know. I don’t want to be appropriative and I don’t necessarily think my writing is as good (perhaps yet) when it strays too far from my perspective. I think it is kind of impossible to not put at least some of myself, my experiences, or my interests into my characters … even the ones who are very different from me.

My conclusions, insofar that I have them are this:

  • Should is a pejorative term.
  • Every writer handles these questions differently and a writer’s process can change over his or her career.
  • How much a writer puts him or herself into what they are writing is probably, like almost all things, a balance.

The characters I write are never me, but I think so far they do often share big characteristics from me and aspects of my voice.

In looking at the different drafts I’ve written of DREAMERS (my first attempt at a novel that I’ve recently put in the drawer at least for now) I think a reason I stuck with it for so long (3-4 years!) is that I kept changing the main idea behind the story and the character’s struggles to fit my own. It’s primarily a science fiction/fantasy novel, but I still notice now that I was putting A LOT of myself into the story.

When I conceived of the novel in college, I think the story was a lot about dealing with a disconnection to the world and a fear of the future. After I left college, began moving between cities and jobs pretty frequently, and worked primarily with disadvantaged children and families my drafts seemed to morph into the characters trying to find and protect an escape from their everyday lives. In my last drafts, I see the characters really looking for connection with each other and trying to figure out who to trust.

With each draft I think I learned a little bit more about how to write a novel, but I think I also used these drafts to explore the issues I was grappling with at the time. I was using the novels and the characters therapeutically.

I don’t think I have the distance yet to know if I’m following the same patterns in the novels I’m working on now. I guess only time will tell.

Readers and writers alike, I’m wondering what your opinions are on this question? I know there isn’t one right answer, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts.

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