How many times have you picked up a book, read its synopsis, and then read the bio, only to find that the author is from the same town that the book is set in? And then, doing a little more research, how many times do you discover that the protagonist of the book is remarkably similar to its author?
There’s nothing wrong with the author putting him or herself into the work: after all, the best a writer can do is to work with what they have, which is to say that their work would be inspired by their own experiences. But many times, I get turned off from the book when I can detect that the writings on the page are not much more than the author’s own thoughts or fears or insecurities put onto a page. So I tried to reason out what it is that broke the “vivid continuous dream” that John Gardner says we should aspire to creating in a novel.
At first, I thought that the problem was with the first-person narrative. I examined a few novels in which I detected such transparently autobiographic voices, such as The Extra Man and a few others that I do not recall at the moment. I thought I had struck upon something: the novels were written in the first person. But then I was reminded of The Catcher In The Rye, which was also written in the first person.
So what is it, then, that clues me into the fact that the book is largely an exercise in unabashed wish-fulfillment and autobiography?
Purposefulness is what it boils down. In essence, good writing is tight writing: efficient and purposeful. Everything—and I mean everything—that is in the story must absolutely be there for a reason. Not just any reason though: I believe that any and all details should serve an artistic purpose, and that it should be echoed throughout the entire novel.
Take setting, for example. Just because you are from Jonestown doesn’t mean that you should set your story in Jonestown. If you are in fact going to set it in Jonestown, make it such that the story could not happen anywhere else. What is specific to Jonestown that you don’t find anywhere else? Be specific. It could be a tall gnarled tree whose short trunk and tall thin branches look like an old arthritic hand sprouting out of the ground in pain. Or perhaps there is an old woman whose personal history is tied into the history of the town. All that really matters is that the setting is described in significant detail that has a measurable impact on the story. You must convince the reader that the story could happen only in Jonestown, and only with the people found in Jonestown.
In terms of creating your protagonist, it is all too easy for first-time writers to create an alternate fantastical version of him or herself, especially when written in the first-person perspective. In that case, the story is nothing but an exercise in wish-fulfillment. This can be avoided, however, through good storytelling. Many writers create a protagonist who is physically similar to themselves. In The Catcher In The Rye, Holden Caulfield was tall and thin, just as JD Salinger was. In Jonathan Ames’ The Extra Man, Louis Ives is tall, blonde, and Jewish; Ames himself is not so different. The difference between the two novels is difficult to discern. I can say, however, that Ames writes excessively about the character’s insecurity over being Jewish without fully developing the theme. Salinger, on the other hand, only mentions Holden’s height in passing, never making a big deal of over it.
The solution is to create meaning in one’s physicality. In Catcher, Holden’s height and gray hairs lends him an air of maturity and age that he ironically does not deserve. In some classic novel I cracked open, there was a character whose limbs were described as being gangly, and that dangled and moved at odd angles, indicating to the reader that the character lacks grace and is socially awkward.
There are other details that would bring into question the motivations of the writer, but these are the ones that come to mind for the time being. It is important to avoid plopping down details for no reason. Details are like the cinematic close-up. They should be used judiciously. Imagine if you watched a movie in which the camera showed the viewer a close-up of a character’s hair, nose, cufflinks, and then his shoes. Would you not question why the director is drawing your attention to such details?
In writing, details take on more significance because of the increased amount of mental energy the reader must invest. Therefore, of each detail, ask yourself if it can be replaced with something more specific to the context of your story; and ask yourself why things are the way they are. Why is your protagonist wearing a blue blazer and not a gray one? Why is the girl he is attracted to tall and not short? Conversely, perhaps there are times when such details are not necessary. These are the pains that a writer must take in order to create a world worthy of examination, a believable world that readers will be drawn into.