Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On Being Quite a Character

question for stiefvater 
Dear bleep-blop-bedroom-pop,

When I was a small and angry child, I used to pass my time in a variety of creative pursuits: making masks out of paper plates, writing stories with names like Bone at the Pound*, making paper dolls of my family, digging up the entire side yard and terraforming it into a miniature mud-and-stick village for one inch tall inhabitants, and grooming my terriers into the ridiculous shapes that the American Kennel Club mandated for show-readiness.

*this sounds like it should be the kind of fanfiction one can easily find on Tumblr, but I swear it was actually about a dog actually at a facility for lost animals.

The creative activity I’d like to call your attention to is the making of paper dolls. There were many iterations of these over the years. The early ones were fanciful and looked nothing like my family, the middling ones looked precisely like my family, and the final ones merely used my family’s faces for models. By the time I got to the last set that I can remember — a rather elaborate extended family entirely appareled in clothing accurate to 1910-1920 — I had learned to use what I could from reality and invent the rest as it suited the greater good.

This is how I tend to think about the concept of putting yourself into a novel. My early novels were about characters who looked nothing like me, the middling ones were characters who accidentally looked too much like me, and the final ones occasionally had characters with a quite strong and intentional resemblance to myself in them.

The important word in all of this is intentional.

You can put as much or as little of yourself into a novel as you would like so long as you are aware of what you’re doing and are able to make yourself into an actual character, not merely a biased facsimile of yourself. This can be a harder task to accomplish than it sounds; we humans are not very good at being objective about ourselves. It’s far easier to steal someone else’s life or personality and realize which parts you can edit out because they aren’t useful to the narrative. It’s also far easier to realize why someone else might be the way they are. Oh, you say to yourself, it’s obvious that this other person has developed an aversion to authority because of the influence of this other person in their childhood! Far harder to search your own soul and realize why you are the way you are — to realize why you have your most basic guiding principles. The analysis, which you’ll need for creating any character, asks for a somewhat awe-inspiring level of self-awareness if you’re talking about stylizing yourself.

You also need to be able to chuck the parts of you and your life story that don’t serve the story. It doesn’t matter how important they were to your life. If they don’t fit the story, out they come. If you aren’t able to think of yourself as a character, to stylize, to shape yourself into narrative, and if you aren’t willing to edit and change that character until the youness may indeed be unrecognizable, don’t do it. Save it for your autobiography (mine will be called EVERYTHING MUST GO: THE MAGGIE STIEFVATER STORY).

The final thing I will say is to be certain you are making only one character into you, otherwise you’ll end up with an entire paperdoll family bearing your face and they’ll all look the same when you dress them up in their World War I uniforms for that riveting game of Let’s Play Everyone Gets Trench Foot.

Also, I suggest changing your name, unless it really is an autobiography. Otherwise everyone will say, “Bleep-blop-bedroom-pop, did you base bleep-blop-bedroom-pop on yourself?”


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