In middle school, I started writing this series, Chronicles of Kings. It was inspired by LOTR & DragonLance initially, and then the Inheritance Cycle came along and ruined my life, which is to say that there were a lot of dragons in it. Like, so many. In the beginning, there was also a portal between realms, so it started on Earth and ended on Irizedd (will I ever rename the world? probably not). All of my characters were the actual worst, and not in a good way. Like, I think back on them now, and I’m just–gross, why. They all whined incessantly, they all had terrible personalities, and none of them deserved to lead anyone, much less be king. They went through a lot of iterations throughout the years, and though I’ve since abandoned that story and don’t honestly think I’ll ever go back to it, I have a lot of fond memories of it.
However, in high school, probably around the second time I was trying to write it, and I’d say probably the most productive time, given that I probably wrote about three or four books in the series? I don’t remember when it started, or even who it started with, but I started including my friends as characters. Half the time, it wasn’t discreet at all. One of my best friends, Jen, got a character named Jeniia. Is that how it was spelled? I’m not going to go look, but I’m pretty sure. It was–not great.
There were so many others, too, though Jen’s character is the one I remember the clearest, which is probably because I ended up killing that character, and it was around then that I realized writing your friends as characters is a horrible idea. It’s so weird to me, now, when people ask if they can be in my books. Like, do you–understand what happens when I write? Absolute chaos. I have zero control over what’s going to happen, so it might be all fine and dandy one page, and then suddenly you’re in the throes of death the next and being saved by your immortal gay lover that you didn’t know you had a moment ago. Like?? It’s true madness.
Look, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I think everyone should go through a phase in their life where they write their friends as characters in their books and then realize oh dear god this is NOT GOOD. Mine happened to be in the form of Jen going, “Ummmm? Are we in a fight? Is there something I need to know?” We weren’t, but it made sense for her character to die, and it was just this strange mix of emotions in our friendship that I did not enjoy. It was starting to occur to me that I didn’t have a whole lot of control over my characters, and anything was possible with their arcs after they were first put on page, so what if I put another friend in my book and they ended up dead, as well?
A whole other post should be about how/when/why to kill your characters, and I’m totally going to write it, but I just need to appreciate the fact that I killed everyone in the beginning. There were, like, three characters that were safe, and even though I do have really big casts now, I had ENORMOUS casts back then, so that was a very small number. I’d kill characters left and right, not a care in the world for what it did to the story, just that I wanted all the drama always. It was insane, and I am much more stingy with my character deaths now.
Now, there’s a difference between putting your friends and putting yourself in your book. And I know this is a huge aesthetic shift, from dragon fantasy to rock n roll, but if I’m honest with myself, there’s only one character in my writing that’s actually me, and that’s Alex Hart. He’s probably one of my most talked about characters on this blog, though it’s been a longgggg time since I last did, and I find that hilarious given that I’m never going to publish his book. I realized a while back that I wrote it purely for myself, and though he is pretty much me through and through, that’s not why I’ll never publish it. There’s a whole slew of other reasons.
But it’s definitely interesting to write myself as a character, particularly in the way it happened with Alex. He’s not a self-insert like you’re thinking, but he has so many of my traits and quirks and weirdness from high school that it’s like looking in a funhouse mirror, and it’s? It’s odd, to say the least, particularly when deciding who to share it with. Only one other person has read his story before, and I trust her implicitly, so it wasn’t terrible, but the thought of sharing it with anyone else kind of feels like opening up my soul and shining a spotlight on it.
There are definitely moments where I’ve dropped pieces of myself into other characters. Little nods, mostly revolving around tea or baking, that I know my friends will recognize, and that maybe I’ll become known for eventually. But just little things, and they’re almost never little things from my friends anymore. No one asks me to be in my books anymore, and I’ve got enough sense to not do it on my own.
There is, of course, one exception.
It just occurred to me that Erin’s character in sister witches also dies. Huh. Well, this is–complicated.
I’m not going to name the character because that’s a major spoiler, but if you’ve read it (hi Chelsea & Sara!), um, well, that picture is a big iykyk vibe, I APOLOGIZE. Sister witches was always going to have elements of Erin & myself in it, though, because it’s original conception was literally me saying, “I want to write a sitcom about us being best witch friends who live together.” It’s not a sitcom, though it is hilarious, and two of the characters are definitely based on us.
However, when I say based on us, it’s a little different than it used to be. Jen’s character wasn’t wholly her, but there were a lot of core elements that connected the two, and killing her character felt like trying to kill our friendship? It was a very strange and uncomfortable feeling, and I swore I would never repeat it, and yet, here we are. But Erin’s character, while she has a lot of the same core elements, is also very specifically her own person. There is a lot there that can nod back to Erin, but there’s also a lot that’s very different, that speaks to the character’s overall personality rather than just me inserting one of my friends.
There’s always going to be elements of myself & my friends in my stories because that’s just how life works. You want your imagined world to reflect the things you love most about your real world. But I no longer specifically write characters based on my friends, and I think that’s a good move. And hey, if it works for you to do it, then all the power to you. I have found, though, that it creates some weird tension, and then it feels like you can’t do anything but be nice to the character, and, honestly, sometimes you just gotta axe someone and move on.