Are You What You Write?

by Robert Gregory Browne

My wife is concerned.

"I think you should blog about it on Murderati, Rob.  See what other people think."

She works in the office of a public high school.  When it came time for my first book, KISS HER GOODBYE to be released, she was sure to let everyone at work know, and helped generate a huge gathering of well-wishers at my Barnes and Noble launch.

A lot of her colleagues came out and bought a signed copy of the book, and I was, to say the least, grateful. Grateful to all the people who showed up and, of course, grateful to my wife for getting them out there.  No one could ask for a more exciting and successful launch (we sold every book in stock — close to sixty).

But, as I said, she’s concerned.

You see, there are parts of my book that aren’t exactly politically correct.  Some of the characters, being bad guys, are vile, bigoted creeps.  One in particular, a guy by the name of Bobby Nemo, treats women as sex objects, utters profanities, racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, and is generally not a very pleasant guy.  The words that come out of his mouth, the things he thinks, are not pretty.

And this is what has my wife concerned.  She worries that all those people who showed up to buy my book, all of those colleagues — people she sees day in and day out — will read the book with its slimy characters like Nemo and wonder what kind of man she married. 

She’s afraid they’ll read the book and think that its characters and situations are a reflection of me, of the way I think and feel.

I remind her that I’m writing crime fiction, that the people who populate that world are not very nice, and that unless my characters think and speak the way criminals and cops think and speak, I won’t have much of a book.

I also try to point out that I’m just about the polar opposite of Bobby Nemo —

— yet she still worries.  Her colleagues don’t really know me, she says.  And what if they assume that I’m some sort of racist pervert.  How embarrassing.

To complicate matters, she recently listened to my first podcast with Brett Battles — a podcast on creating characters ( — and I happened to utter the words, "all of my characters are me" as I explained my approach to writing.

And this is true.  In a way, all of my characters ARE me.  I’m like a method actor taking on a role, using details of my own life to flesh out each character I’m trying to portray.  It’s something that can’t be helped.  By using my own experiences, coupled with imagination, I’m able to create what I hope are very compelling, three-dimensional people.

That still doesn’t mean that Bobby Nemo ever, for even a moment, speaks for me.

I seem to recall the young Stephen King running into all kinds of trouble with his early books.  Who is this guy?  people wondered.  He’s gotta be sick in the head.

But as we all now know — or at least assume, based on his appearances on various TV shows — Mr. King is a relatively mild-mannered guy who, like me, shares little, if anything, with the whacked out characters he creates.

Or does he?

All of this gives rise to a question:  how much of ourselves do we
consciously or unconsciously put into the people we create to populate
our novels?  Do our novels give us an excuse to allow our long suppressed emotions and beliefs to come out? 

I can confidently so no, that isn’t the case for me.  I just make stuff up.

But what about you?  Are YOU what you write?


16 thoughts on “Are You What You Write?

  1. Christa Miller

    I grew up extremely sheltered, so I do have trouble writing what I or people I know have not directly experienced. I internalize everything so it’s a way for me to process life (and hopefully help others do the same). In fact, I don’t think my writing was any good until my first child was born, because that was when I started to feel things a lot more profoundly. So I think I do make it into my stories (the novels, anyway) more than others.

  2. pari

    Yes and no, Rob.

    Of course the characters are us; they have to be because we create them. But they’re only parts of us — fantasies, hopes, angers, wishes for revenge etc.

    Many of my readers want to turn my protag into me — and it is true that we share some similar life experiences — but Sasha thinks about and reacts to her world very differently than I do.

    Frankly, I’m not nearly as impulsive. I don’t live as large.

    With the new series, I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t talk to cockroaches, except to say, “Ewwwww.”

    However . . . yes on the whipped cream.

  3. billie

    I think we all operate creatively from our unconscious, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily expressing secret wishes/intentions or beliefs. It’s more complex than that.

    David Morrell did a keynote for the recent Backspace conference and some of what he said speaks to this. (the keynote has been transcribed on someone’s blog and I read it there but can’t find it now… will try to post a link later today)

  4. B.E. Sanderson

    The heroes I write are bits of me and bits of who I want to be. The villians are the antithesis of that. No one character is all me – that would be pretty boring.

  5. Kathleen

    I imagine that every writer, beginning and a successful has at some point come across that very same concern, whether it be their own or someone else’s. I, for example, dread getting my first book published because my mother will read it. My mother who has a terrible tendency to take things too literally. In the 9th grade I wrote a humorous essay for English called Me and My Temper about all the funny ways I blow off steam. Everyone who read it thought it was hilarious. My mother read it and thought that I was a miserable child and offered therapy. :slaps forehead: Geez! So I feel the urge to preface my books with a disclaimer: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any people, places, or events is purely coincidental. I still half expect her to call me up “Did you gt pregnant at 18?!” Um, no mom…it’s fiction…

  6. Louise Ure

    Rob, I’ll send you back to the Bossuet quote that Ken B. cited the other day: “One must know oneself, to the point of being horrified.”

    If you can find that nugget inside yourself –whether it’s vile or fine–you’ve tapped into something that makes your characters live and breathe.

  7. Joan Conwell

    Thanks, Robert, for the thought provoking post! Being new to the genre, I’m definitely ambivilent about the evil and violent characters I create. Isn’t there enough bad in the world without inventing more? But you can’t have the good without the bad. Thrillers and crime fiction help us distell and cope with the incomprehensible, much like morality plays did in ages past.

  8. JT Ellison

    The beauty of being a writer is we create. Pari’s right, there must be some tiny piece of our conscious or unconscious in every character, they’re coming out of our minds.

    Creating characters is my absolute favorite part of the job. Good or bad, they all have a life different than mine. (Thank goodenss, can you imagine how bored they’d all be if they had to sit in the chair and write all day?) They think their own thoughts and live their own lives. Sometimes they get a little too real. But they aren’t me.

    Tell your wife not to worry. Characters do what they need to drive the story.

  9. simon

    I am all the characters in the book–the good and the bad–but like you said Rob, it’s a method acting thing. If I were this kind of character, how would I be? Imagination and reality are two different things…

  10. spyscribbler

    I’m not my characters, but I slip into their minds and skin pretty deeply.

    Sometimes, I see deep, deep parallels from my life. Changed and hidden, of course, and completely unconscious. But obvious enough to me that I sit back and go, “Do I really believe that/feel that way?”

    I hope no one else can see them!

  11. Jim Born

    This has got to be the biggest hassle I get. I don’t write about me but every character is based on someone I know. Sometimes I even use their real names.

    I use my wife’s real maiden name for Tasker’s ex-wife and based the character entirely on her. When I asked her if she cared she asked me, “Do I have to go back to work?”

    I said, “No.”

    She said, “Then I don’t give a damn what you write.”

    My next book is based on what I want to read. A hevay-set, middle aged cop who women find irresistable. Now that’s good fiction.

    Keep up the good work Mr. Browne.


  12. Sara Rosett

    Rob, I think I’ll print today’s post, make copies, and give it to people who ask if I am my main character or if the family in the books is like my family in real life. The answer is no—on both counts. In fact, I worked hard to make my character’s family extremely different from my own, but I’ve discovered that no matter what I say, lots of people still think my books are an autobiography cloaked in fiction. Maybe a handout will help clear things up…


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