Why do we write? Why do we read? And is the answer to these questions the same?
Creative, by definition, is characterised by originality of thought. Why then do we, as writers, put pieces of ourselves into our work? Are we saying that our thoughts and ideas, and by extension ourselves, are original and therefore worthy of consumption by the reading population?
The answer appears to have as many facets as the original question.
Tony Talbot is an independently published author of 26 pieces of fiction, ranging from delicious short stories to novels in the Young Adult genre. His works have been steadily gaining popularity on the reading social networking site, Goodreads, since he joined in 2011.
His first novel, Over the Mountain explores suicide, depression and the death of loved ones. The book follows Jenna, a teenage girl, and how she and her sleepy English town react to the death of local teens. When I asked Tony how he made the character reactions so realistic, his answers weren’t quite what I was expecting. Tony‘s brother died in a horrific car accident years before the book was written. He used his experiences and the real-life reactions of his parents, as stimulus for the characters’ reactions in the novel.
“I added it [the grief of his family] because everything a writer sees or experiences is there to be thrown into the melting-pot of a book; and my experience was that this is how this family would react.”
Writing about grief and death can be extremely cathartic. It can allow for writers to explore their own thoughts and emotions from a slightly removed state. It can also do the same for readers. Tony’s non-fiction story The Box, about a neighbour’s funeral was extremely poignant for me in a time of grief last year.
When reading the provocative piece, I was overwhelmed with a number of emotions. Happiness, that I wasn’t alone in how I was feeling, sadness in that we both had to deal with grief, awe at how accurately Tony had been able to capture the emotions I was feeling and surprisingly, pleasure at being able to share this deeply personal experience with Tony.
“Yes, it was easier to write about because it was a neighbour’s funeral; but in a way, the piece is as much about my experiences as his.
“Writing it was cathartic though; it allowed the grief out and on to the page.” Said Tony when asked if it was easier to write about than his own grief.
Writing pieces of ourselves into our works, goes beyond the grim and emotional, and spans into the realm of charactisation too. Writers, in general, are usually observant folk and that odd gesture the coffee guy does when he serves your morning coffee is just as likely to end up in a story as the way your own eyes light up at the mention of mangos.
“All of my characters, are in some ways, bits of me,” Tony said.
It seems that it is not just the indie authors either. James Bond is a reflection of Ian Fleming’s ideal self, while Jonathon Kellerman is said to have modeled his psychologist character, Dr. Alex Delaware, on himself too.
In more recent times, Stephenie Meyer bears a remarkable resemblance to the Twilight heroine, Bella Swan.
Christopher Paolini also told interviewers that he based character Angela, from the Inheritance Cycle, on his sister.
Does this mean that authors are seeking approval for themselves and their beliefs in their writing?
“I believe all writers and creative artists do [seek approval of a sort]. We’re constantly asking, “What did you think?”, even when we don’t like the answer. Love us or hate us, just don’t ignore us.
“I don’t put pieces of myself into my characters to seek approval, no. I put them in because it makes them more realistic for me.” Tony said.
Evidence shows that we, as readers, tend to enjoy stories more when we can draw similarities to the characters – no matter how tenuous.
The success of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L James could be attributed to the population’s hidden desire to partake in the kinky lifestyle the book is written about. Business Insider reported that statistics on American rope sales “skyrocketed” by more than 10 times just after the book gained international fame.
The reader can also benefit emotionally from reading. When asked, Tony said he most connected with the character Lochlan from Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma.
“Forbidden is a story of incest, but that’s not why I feel drawn to the character. He has social anxiety, and I know what that’s like. Forbidden is the first book I’ve ever felt to come anywhere close to it. At one point, a teacher offers Lochlan some help and I nearly cried. There were no counsellors when I was at school, no one to help me. Such a simple act of kindness from a teacher would have been overwhelming.”
This reaction to a character is exactly what an author wants from a reader. Tony himself said as much to me when I told him I cried when reading Over the Mountain.
Does this mean that authors intend to provoke a reaction from their readers?
I believe so. Even if that reaction is simply to ponder a question, cry, scream in frustration, giggle, or sigh.
This is the power of books.