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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Self-based Protagonists - Truth or Dare?

In a recent BLOG, a question was raised concerning writing novels based on an author’s direct experience. The crux of the matter was whether an author could remain objective while presenting situations that they had personally lived through. Would an author gloss over darker detailed to obscure their own warts, dimming the truth by shining it up? On that BLOG, I gave a cursory answer that needs elaboration in light of my own direct-experience novel — Surviving an American Gulag.

Early drafts of Gulag were written in the first person, and although I assumed the name of Winslow Gibbs, I set out to express my thoughts directly to the reader through terse narrative — a narrative that I must admit was biased with a gay agenda. This is a case where the author has an axe to grind and does it at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment (it is a novel after all) and an overlay of themes that dull the senses to any compromise or rebuttal. I was marching through Georgia like Sherman, burning the world with my own opinions. I thought I was being objective. I presented myself as a fat slug, who went through an Army hell to survive, but in the end, I lost objectivity — that objectivity being the truth of novel authoring, which is to bend the truth for the sake of characterization and the reader’s pleasure.

In the case of Surviving an American Gulag, I decided to recast the work in the 3rd person and draw the self-based protagonist — Winslow Gibbs, as any character that emerges from my pen. As a result, Winslow observes and experiences far more than I ever did, and without all the gay preaching. "It is what it is." The work is about surviving, not victimization. It presents basic hurdles that all young American men need to face — questions of sexuality, patriotism, loyalty, companionship, and peer pressure. In the 3rd person, I found warts I never knew I had until now — forty years after the fact.

Ultimately, an author needs to distance themselves from personal experience to engage the reader. In my opinion, the creative process is hampered when the author develops a character from the inside out. I must enjoy my characters and the situations that beset them. If I can’t enjoy the landscape, how can I expect my reader to sign on for a really good read? As Private Avila says: "There are white lies, black lies and pink lies." Well, there’s a fourth lie — a highly crafted, premeditated one. It’s called — a novel. Happy reading.

Edward C. Patterson
visit me at Dancaster Creative

3 comments:

Erastes said...

The trouble with protagonists that are too close to one's self is that you run the risk of "Mary Sue/Gary Stu" syndrome

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue

Where the author idealises oneself - removes the flaws and makes them too good to be true.

I was guilty of this once, in the first thing I ever wrote (a fanfiction) when I didn't even know what a Mary Sue was - but as soon as I did, I fought hard to make sure that in future, NONE of my characters would ever be classes as Sues or Stus - they have be flawed and to struggle like fuck.

NL Gassert said...

Is it possible to write a flawed self-based character who isn’t preaching? I think it would depend entirely on the self-awareness of the author and what kind of masochist he or she is.

No worries, I’m not going to attempt it any time soon.

And, boy, did I ever dislike Mary Sues ...

Edward C. Patterson said...

Well, Erastes, Winslow Gibbs has all my flaws, warts and all. I did an on-line reading and was asked how I felt about the main character, to which I responded that I was uneasy with it, because I decided to be honest and revealed my bad conduct during that period. I was 270 pounds when I was drafted and when I went into the Special Training Unit, and thrown in with a bunch of queers, I was pretty nervous about it. My actions were not something to be proud of, but I won't spoil the work by saying how here. I was no Mary Sue - but I believe many readers appreciated the fact that I developed the character as any other character with all my personal character flaws.

NL Glaser: It is hard to not proslytize when one is speaking on a politcal topic and embraces Gay Activism. The original play I wrote in 2000 (unproduced) was a soapbox that told the world how harsh they are to the gay community. Look at what they did to me. When I drafted the novel, it was first person and rang the pink bell of freedom and martyrdom. This final version tossed all that shit out, cast it in the 3rd person, and changed the landscape from a place that was official torture to a challenge for the self-tortured. After all, the title is "Surviving" an American Gulag. I think that I am a better person today for the experience, because sometimes the hell we think we're dealt is the hell we MUST confront or we're nothing more than a lost soul on some pity trip.

One Amazon reviewer expressed it thus: (pardon the last line, which I egoistically have included)

"Through Private Gibbs, I met each character, I learned to accept and be accepted by all of them, I made mistakes and I corrected them, and I learned to love myself and then broadened that love to include others. Failures and successes were ever present and I learned to pick myself up when necessary and when to raise my hands and cheer. I ask myself, "Did I feel what the author wanted me to feel?" The answer is yes, his writing is that good."

Best of all (at least telling to me), the reviewer is not gay. I always write with gay characters and gay-themes, but I fail if I have not transcended the genre.

Ed Patterson