The Writer as Protagonist

Some time ago–a historian is about the last thing I’d call myself,so I wouldn’t even venture to say when–it became fashionable for authors to use writers as protagonists.

The glaring example of this in my experience was Stephen King, and I believe he usually did it well. When he used a writer as a protagonist, it generally had something interesting to do with a story — it wasn’t an offhanded thing. Unfortunately, the writer-as-protagonist has become overused. Some of these books are done well, but in some of them there’s just no good reason relevant to the book and its plot why the character is a writer.

There are quite a few reasons not to use a writer as the protagonist in your stories. Here are several to think about.

It’s been done to death

It isn’t fashionable any more. (Or maybe it is, but it probably shouldn’t be.) To judge by the protagonists in the books out there, you’d think most of the people having interesting experiences in the world are writers. I don’t know; maybe you believe that’s true. But I don’t. Other people lead interesting lives as well.

It’s lazy

The writer makes a convenient protagonist, especially in horror stories. He doesn’t have an office to go to and remove him from the horror of the setting. He can go missing for weeks if he doesn’t have a family and his publisher won’t even notice because his next work isn’t due yet. He can do his work from anywhere, so it’s easy to have him move out to the country to live in a haunted house. Most writers (in books, anyway) don’t have to be at an office at 9 am. The writer has an excuse to know about any subject necessary under the heading of research for one of his books. That same research gives the writer an excuse to be in any random corner of the world at any time, in all sorts of dangerous circumstances.

Tempting, isn’t it, when put in those terms? Unfortunately, the choice of writer as protagonist has become a substitute for research and careful plotting. When authors are given the choice between coming up with a believable explanation for why some other person would be doing all of these things, and just making the protagonist a writer — well, many of them choose to make the protagonist a writer.

It can be egotistical

Writers are assumed to be gifted with powers of observation that others do not have. (If I had a dime for every time the writer-as-protagonist is declared to have noticed one thing, or remembered another, simply because he’s a writer and thus good at these things, I’d be wealthy.) Why? Plenty of other people have brains, recall, and powers of observation as well (and plenty of writers have bad memories…), whether due to personality or occupation. To assume that writers are inherently better at these things is egotism, and risks making any reader who is not a writer feel as though he is being insulted.

It can alienate some readers

At its best, the writer-as-protagonist gives the reader — who may be entirely unfamiliar with the process of writing–a glimpse into another world. It allows him to understand for a brief moment what it must be like to create stories. At its worst, it shuts him out. It leaves him outside the circle of understanding and makes him feel alone, uninvited.

If authors write exclusively about, to, and for writers, they’ll alienate everyone else. We have a hard enough time getting a large readership these days without making it even more difficult for readers to identify with their protagonists. Make your readers feel unwelcome and they won’t keep reading your work.

It creates confusion between author and character

The more the author steals from his own life and profession in order to create the protagonist, the more the reader wonders if all of the protagonist’s quirks and ethics (and life history, friends, etc.) belong to the author. I think we have enough problems with readers mixing up the work of fiction with the author’s life without further muddling the issue.

It can also create a confusion between author and protagonist in the author’s own mind. It seems to me that there’s at least some small correlation between writer-as-protagonist and a tendency for the protagonist to get side-tracked into moralizing speeches, presumably as a mouthpiece for those things the author feels strongly about. Only rarely are speeches fun to read in fiction.

Write what you know doesn’t have to mean…

The temptation to use a writer as your protagonist is strong. Everyone’s told you to “write what you know,” and what you know is writing. But “write what you know” doesn’t have to be such a literal thing. If herbalism is a hobby of yours, you could have a protagonist who’s an herbalist, a botanist, a gardener, or even a florist. If your brother is a pilot, you might draw on some of his stories and create a protagonist who’s a pilot or a flight attendant.

Draw on more than just your immediate, primary experiences. You must have read a lot, or you probably wouldn’t have become a writer. So draw on all of those esoteric facts. If you’re really at a loss, go take a walk through the nearest city and pick someone who looks interesting to be your protagonist. Make up a story about what you think he does for a living, what sort of family he must have, and so on.

Drop by your local library. Pick up a book on a random subject, and assume that your protagonist works in that field. Read “Careers for YourC haracters.” “Write what you know” can mean “write what you just read in that magazine” as easily as it can mean “write what you do for a living.”

Ultimately, the use of the writer as protagonist is like anything else. Used in moderation, and used well, it can be just as good as any other literary choice. But when it has become overused, as it has now, and when it gets used badly, as it has been, it’s time to retire it for a while. Give it a dignified rest. Work something rare into your stories; make your protagonist stand out. Play with a doll-maker, a tailor, a pharmacologist, a chef. And if you really must make your protagonist a writer, then do it for a good reason–not just because it makes your life easier.

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