by Scott Rhoades
Writing about Sir Thomas Malory and his Le Morte d'Arthur, John Steinbeck said, "It is nearly always true that a novelist, perhaps unconsciously, identifies himself with one of the chief or central characters in his novel, Into this character he puts not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be. We call this spokesman the self-character."
The self-character doesn't have to be the protagonist, or even the antagonist. Usually, we plan this character carefully and give him or her a central place in the story, as Steinbeck suggested. Often, though, the character takes us by surprise. We write a character who is meant to have an important role, but a relatively short-lived one. Once we start writing, though, that character takes on a life of his own, capturing the author's imagination, and as a result evolves into a more important character than we had expected. That character often ends up giving the story a little something special that might otherwise have been lacking.
As my writing group can tell you, I had that experience in one of my stories, a Middle Grade tale about an orphan who comes into his own. The kid, Christopher, has a tutor named Alexander. In an early draft, Alexander had a significant role, but not a very big one. In fact, I had two separate adults who acted as Christopher's helper at different points of the story, Alexander and a cook, whose name I don't even remember. I think it might have just been Cook.
Alexander surprised me by coming to life and by taking on--actually making fun--a couple of my personal quirks. He is easily distracted, especially if there is something that can be researched. As I know all too well, there is always something that can be researched. I had too much fun with Alexander and, although there are very important differences between us, I identified with him. He's a comic character, but by parodying some of my own personality, I brought him to life, and it became obvious that I had to keep him around. So I axed Cook and kept Alexander throughout the story, except for a while near the end when Christopher needs to solve his problems without adult intercedence.
In a different story, I wrote a girl character who was meant to help the main characters for a short time. It's a fish-out-of-water story, and I used this character to help the protagonist and his sidekick understand and navigate their new surroundings. I'm not sure how it happened, but I ended up identifying with certain parts of her character, and her role expanded significantly. Maybe because she got to be the mouthpiece for my research, a teacher and a guide.
I don't know that either of these characters really represent me in the way that Steinbeck's "self-character" would. Chances are that I'm better represented by a different character that people who know me best recognize me in more than I do. But the fact remains that, by putting myself into some of my characters and using them to help me tell the story the way I want to, to say what I want to say, I've made these characters bigger than I had meant to and, I hope, more interesting to read.
Of course, we put more of ourselves into our stories and our characters than we think we do, certainly more than we intend to. But it seems like there's always one character who, whether we mean to or not, ends up representing us, maybe in unexpected and unintentional ways. That's the self-character. If you discover him and make use of him, your story is almost certain to be better because of him.