the overthinking of the author

The other day I was listening to someone talk about a book and they did something interesting. This was a public talk, timed and with an audience and everything, and it’s entirely possible that this was one of those mistakes you make on the fly and have to push through because hey, it’s a public talk, so I’m not being vague to be coy – it’s because I don’t know for sure that this was a conscious choice or an interesting verbal slip.

The speaker mentioned how an author said that the events in a specific book had been based in part on his own personal experience, as related in a past interview. In the book, though, it’s a woman that gets put in that position instead of a man, and with far worse consequences. The speaker said that the author put his wife in his place, and then continued to refer to the character as “author’s wife” instead of “character’s name.”

It’s possible the speaker blanked on the character’s name. I think we’ve all been there – we’re sure we know our stuff, but once the clock starts ticking and we’re confronted with all those faces (or black zoom windows), it all disappears. But, intentional or not, it got me thinking about the assumptions that particular naming practice implies. (And of course got me musing some more on the death of the author and who gets to argue which interpretation is true.)

First possible assumption: if a character isn’t the same gender as the author, then it’s totally not the author.

The speaker framed that part clearly: he experienced this thing in real life but then transferred that experience to the wife character instead of the husband character. The husband shared some characteristics with the author – all well and good – but the underlying assumption here was that the wife wasn’t the author, at all. She was The Wife, very much separate and other from him, and he put The Wife in his own real-life situation rather than putting himself in her shoes.

On the one hand, author surrogates are a recognized thing. But on the other, authors have stated that they put pieces of themselves in all of their characters. So do we have to limit the author-self within a piece of fiction to one single character that is him, and all of these other characters who aren’t? (Spoiler: I don’t think so.)

I’m not going to get into a full discussion here of whether authors can realistically write other genders, but I think part of humanizing our characters does mean giving pieces of ourselves to each of them. One of them might be the most me, but all of them are a little bit me.

Second possible assumption: characters who have real-life counterparts in the author’s life are automatically reflections of those counterparts.

In this case, it’s wife: the author had a wife, and one of the main characters was a wife. Therefore, the wife is the wife is the wife.

Back when my dad was reading the first draft of Not Your Mary Sue, there were certain points where I felt compelled to remind him that the dad in the story is not, in fact, him. (Not all of those scenes made it to the final draft, in case you’re curious – I’ll write more about that after the book comes out.) So clearly I’m aware that this is an assumption that can be made, and that a young woman writing a first-person point of view of a young woman can confuse the issue, but …

It becomes more problematic (to me) because the Book Wife had done some seriously morally questionable things. The book clearly positioned these as issues and then, like fiction can, punishes her for them. So are we supposed to assume that Author Wife did the same things Book Wife did? If we’re already calling one by the other’s name, where do we draw the comparison line? Are they the same as long as the reader doesn’t personally have proof that they’re not?

Third possible assumption: authors really suck at hiding the biographical.

We’re back to “the wife is a wife.” There’s nothing tricky there. It’s a very direct point. Say the author wanted to criticize – and then punish – his wife for her real-life actions, so he wrote a wife character who did those same things and then added his own plot with the bad ending for the wife character. Therapy he gets to sell, maybe, and then everyone reading it is privy to the deepest inner workings of his marriage.

Personally I think the majority of authors are capable of being a lot more subtle about the whole self-insertion thing. There’s a reason we mock Mary Sues: they’re wish fulfilment and therefore perfection. Author surrogates (presumably written “well enough” to be literary instead of Mary Sues) remain complicated and messy, like real people.

In my example, the author himself gave an interview explaining how an incident from his own past inspired the situation he wrote about, and the trouble he dropped his wife character into. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, really: this happened to me, so I dropped it into my book. The complication apparently springs from the fact that he didn’t make the bad thing happen to the me-figure, but the wife-figure.

At this point I can’t tell if the author stayed too close to real life, and that’s the trouble, or if switching the figure in peril is what’s causing the issue. But I will say that it’s something I do all the time: drop in real-life events or snippets or tidbits into the plot, regardless of how much “me” the character is, as long as they fit. If my novels are grounded in real life, then why not use my own real life as inspiration?


Okay so if nothing else, at this point you’ve learned that I can overthink anything. A simple verbal slip has me pondering all the author/character/reader interpretations all this time later. Do fiction authors interpret fiction different from readers who don’t also write fiction? Was it just a nervous speaker making a mistake? Or does this person know something we don’t about this particular book and its representations?

Here’s my question to you, whether you’re an author or a reader: how much do you think we can read into those kinds of characters? What’s fair, and what’s completely over-the-top?

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