Saturday, November 6, 2010

Writers as protagonists

How do you feel about books where the main character is a writer?

I tend to avoid these, unless they’re by Stephen King. Maybe King is different because he doesn’t hesitate to put his protagonists through as much misery (pun intended) as possible. But in other novels I’ve looked at, the protagonist has fame and fortune for their writing – for instance, Danielle Steel’s Once in a Lifetime.

One reason I don’t find this much fun to read about is because it’s the hundred-and-eighty-degree opposite of the reality of writing. It’s difficult for me as a writer to sympathize with someone who doesn’t get rejection letters, who doesn’t worry about sales and who never has critical reviews. And usually success comes because the protagonist hit it big in commercial publishing and got a large advance, rather than because she has several books on the mid-list.

Or if the writer is toiling in obscurity, that’s because the Establishment hasn’t yet recognized his talent, rather than because he has none.

But another problem with the protagonist being a good writer is that this skill may need to be demonstrated (otherwise it’s difficult to suspend disbelief). So that means including excerpts of what they write – and this needs to be different from the actual writer’s style. King does a great job of this – the short Alexis Machine snippets in The Dark Half were perfect illustrations of George Stark’s style – but I’ve also seen such quotes look painfully self-conscious and constructed, rather than natural.

The more things a character and a writer have in common, the more danger there is of the character becoming an authorial stand-in – or a wish-fulfilment fantasy at worst. And for many readers, the protagonist-as-writer can be too meta, too much of a self-reference.

What are your thoughts on this?


Maria Zannini said...

I have to admit, I walk in with a dose of trepidation if the MC is a writer.

My main concern (and I've found it's often a valid one) is that the story comes off as a Mary Sue monologue. Even if it isn't, in the back of my mind I ask myself, was the author starring in his own novel? It's enough to pull me out of the story.

Marian Perera said...

Maria - I have that concern as well; how much of the author is in the character? It's too easy to wonder that when the protagonist is also a writer.

But I didn't think that with Misery because the novel starts with the main character in deep hurting. I was so caught up in his predicament that the usual skepticism didn't have a chance. Great technique on King's part. :)

Che Gilson said...

I don't mind it if done well. I'm always keen to watch movies about writers too which is funny. But it has to serve the plot in some way. It can't just be an excuse to monologue about how evil editors are and no one appreciates me. I think it can turn into a pity party as quickly as the Mary Sue-isms.

Anonymous said...

I hesitate to use writers as characters, because I'm afraid I'll write a mary-sue, and it just feels really...I don't know, pretentious, I guess.

But I haven't read a lot of books where the main character was a writer, unless being a bard counts.

kim said...

i don't think i've ever read a novel with the protagonist as a writer. but if i may, perhaps you take issue because you are a writer. i can ignore a lot of errors in fiction that others in the character's field take issue with but when the characters work in my own field inaccuracies make me terribly annoyed.

gypsyscarlett said...

I don't mind it at all. As Che commented, it depends how well it is done. I expect three-dimensional characters no matter what their profession might be.