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?