As I go through my writing life -- critting folks, pouring my hearts into stories-- I have become more and more convinced that the biggest flaw in any story occurs when a writer tries to hide herself.
"Ah," I hear someone saying, "But don't most writers try to show themselves?"
Well, yes and no. Some writers get caught up with declaring and showing everything about their life...but it's usually pretty much a list of their sorrows, their goodness, their life as a victim or a sufferer. Other writers --under the guise of "writing purely" or "writing the real historical research" or "art for art's sake" behave as if their stories are totally above the neurotic.
Well, as all of you know by now....I like exploring the neurotic and the weird in myself. Heck, I like exploring the neurotic and the weird in other people. And mercifully, I am mature and loving enough to not judge folks who are honest....(although being honest in a work of art is pretty much asking for some uncompassionate person to lay some judgment on you.) So, yeah, I understand why folks hide the sinful, flaky, weird, neurotic, embarrassing parts of themselves.
The trouble, though, is that we leak. It's like our slip showing or our dirty underwear peeking out over our way too-big pants. (I speak from experience about those pants by the way.) Folks with an astute insightful eye are gonna notice stuff about us. As has been said, a bad novel tells us about the novelist. (But a good novel can tell us about the novelist as well.)
But first the bad novels.
There is the thinly-veiled main character as victim story that sounds so one-sided the reader wants to scream. This is hard to critique because you're dealing with a person who has built up a fortress of defenses. I remember a girl who wrote a story about being forced to have an abortion by her evil religious mother. Okay, i could take her mother as being evil and religious...but I asked the writer to give the religious mother one good trait or a backstory where we could see where the evil mother went bad. I also wanted her to consider realizing her main character, the pregnant teenager, might have had the good and bad traits of the typical teenager. Okay, it was like asking someone to defend Hitler/Stalin?Mao Tse Tung combined. Granted, I have never met anyone who is pure evil -- but I have met folks who were pretty close to pure evil-- but in a story one can make a villain still be a mean villain while humanizing her. And this author was not near good enough to carry off writing a story about her victimized life.
Then there is the character as star. This is something that is probably a result of TV shows and movies. This particular character is always impeccably dressed, etc. Now, you may ask, why does it matter that a character is impeccably-dressed? Because, questioner, some characters and some heroines are not impeccably-dressed. I remember being at a critique circle and someone described her character. The response of the another woman in the group was that that character sounded country and wasn't wearing fashionable clothes. That is what happens when we think novels are only about people who are stars, or who can be played by stars. Someone can be noble and still be butt-ugly, someone can be a hero and still wear head-scarves etc.
Hiding your flaws will only make your stories weaker. Put away the pretenses; realize what you have been through, how very marked you are, how apparent your traits really are and write honestly.
Okay, a conversation: I leak in my stories. The thing is I don't mind leaking. I work with the leak. I'm not sure if this is because I am brave or disdainful of other folks or if I've been so judged by folks that I don't give a damn anymore. One thing I do know is that I don't try to hide my leaks because the story reeks of dishonesty or it looks as if I don't know myself.
My readers know this about me:
Carole McDonnell is a bit of an Oreo. She doesn't seem to fit well into Black culture. Her female characters are Black but she places them inside a world of non-Black folks.
Guilty: I've made Oreoism "multicultural."
Carole McDonnell doesn't seem to get along with many Christians. She's got grudges galore it seems.
Guilty: But by making Christians judgmental and some Christians non-judgmental and by acknowledging this in my novels, I can get away with a lot.
Carole McDonnell seems to like pretty young men.
Guilty, but I can get away with it because the culture is into pretty guys as well.
Carole McDonnell really hates weak men and often seems to put her female characters into situations where the woman is trapped by marriage.
Guilty, but really...don't I do that well? Aren't my stories really different despite the same trope? And won't feminists think I'm exploring the whole marriage thing?
Carole McDonnell whines about her illness a lot. Why does she always have to have sick women in her stories or sick disabled children?
Guilty, but hey I pull it off for the most part.
Again, I repeat the words I heard long ago from a storyteller at a storytelling conference:
STORYTELLING IS MY MOST ELEGANT USE OF MY NEUROSIS.
Folks, don't hide from your neuroses... Writing is not for those with pretenses. Just make your neuroses elegant.