Basing your protagonist off yourself

by Kerri
(Maryville, Tennessee)

Question: I know it's usually considered bad to base your protagonist off yourself. It's said to be lazy and a sign of limited skill. But if your character is a healthy combination of likable traits and flaws, is it forgivable? Is it bad if at some parts of the novel the character is liked by most characters in the novel? I want my protagonist to seem original, likable, and not like a Mary Sue, but what if this is the story I feel I need to tell and no other character works for it? It's not that I'm self-centered, but whose head can I tap into better than my own?

Answer: It may be frowned upon, but everyone puts themselves into their characters to some extent. In fact, many writers would say that every character is at least an aspect of themselves, if they were thrust into a different set of circumstances.

How can you see from another character's point of view if it were not for the fact that all human beings are, on some level, the same?

So maybe you're not a Japanese wrestler, for example. But if you were to study the world of Japanese wrestling and culture, you may be able to imagine how you would feel and think and conduct yourself if you were one, because of that level of common human emotion and thought. What's more, putting a little of yourself into the character can often make the character seem more real and more original.

So maybe the heroine of your first novel is a lot like you. If it's a
great story, no one will care. Eventually, you will want to write a story about someone different, just to give yourself some variety.

Of course, you have to be able to also imagine how the other characters see your character.

As for making your main character too likable, there certainly are ways you could make this work, especially if you play with how the other characters react to the main character.

If you want an example you might check out a great play by Alan Ayckbourn called Absent Friends. It's about a group of friends getting together to comfort a man whose fiancee has just died.

The first act shows the friends assembling one by one. As the audience sees them interact, it becomes clear that they all secretly hate each other. All kinds of tension and hostility is bubbling beneath the surface.

When the man in mourning finally turns up in Act 2, he's the nicest person in the world - one of those people who can see nothing negative about anyone. The fact that he is so nice, in sharp contrast to everyone else, becomes the trigger for all the suppressed anger to finally be expressed.

I'm sure your story is quite different. The point is that people can react to good characters in interesting ways.

It's a general rule that the main character should have some trait or quality that makes him/her uniquely qualified to achieve the Story Goal. Being liked could easily be that quality. It could make her everyone's confidant or the person everyone trusts, etc.

Perhaps that's what you have in mind?

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