Aw, Your Protagonist Looks Just Like You!

December 10th, 2008

Delving into the Mind of the Author

Back in my teens, I didn’t look so hot.  I had braces and was pudgy and kept my hair severely short. I would show you a photo to demonstrate how truly awful I looked back then, but I’m fairly certain I destroyed them all in the Great Photo Purge of 1988. Plus, you know . . . I don’t want to show you.  Or any living human being.

I didn’t have a single date in high school, but, honestly, I didn’t mind, because I was spending my nights happily curled up with Edward Rochester, Messrs. Knightley and Darcy, Sir Percy Blakeney and their ilk. I knew that a relationship with some pimply teenage boy could only disappoint, compared to the passion and elegance of the romances in my favorite books.

But, resigned as I was to my high school chastity, I still hoped the future held something more exciting for me, and read these books looking for some sign that I was destined to grow into a romantic lead. Charlotte Bronte made it easy, by describing Jane Eyre repeatedly as small and plain. I was small and plain! A Mr. Rochester might one day love me! I sucked down Gone with the Wind because even though Scarlett O’Hara was a guy-magnet (unlike me), Margaret Mitchell clearly states 1) that “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful” (my emphasis) and 2) that she had dark hair and green eyes. I wasn’t beautiful and I had dark hair and green eyes! And so on, with every romantic novel, always looking for proof that my days as The Girl No One Notices would one day end, and I would assume my true role as The Romantic Heroine (preferably Windswept).

I grew up, and in the process got rid of the braces, grew my hair out, stopped eating Entenmann’s coffee cake (the root of all evil) and, after years of rejections, actually got a novel published. And then another and another. Now I was the one in the literary driver’s seat and, guess what? My heroines have almost all been dark-haired and short. Like, um . . . me. When things go well for them romantically–and things usually do, at least by the end of the book–I find it all very satisfying.

I don’t think I’m the only one doing this. In fact, I get a kick out of comparing an author’s photo with her description of the main character–more often than not, I can spot a similarity, especially in women’s fiction.

 Heroines who struggle with their weight tend to correlate with authors who struggle with their weight. Often both will have long hair. Older women frequently create older protagonists. And there’s usually a shared ethnicity, religion, or country of origin. You could chalk it up to “writing what you know.” Or you could see it, as I do, as a chance for us writers to cast ourselves in the roles we’d like to play.

Obviously, there are plenty of female writers out there inventing characters who look nothing like them. But for some of us, writing is more than just a career, a creative outlet, or a way to pay the bill-it’s a chance to say that short, plain, fat, silly, blotchy-skinned, bespectacled, normal women like us can and should find love, that just because you don’t look like Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be made love to (in both the old-fashioned and current sense of the term).

Right now I’m working on my fourth novel. At the moment, the protagonist is a short, dark-haired young woman who mostly wears torn jeans and tee-shirts. Her rival is tall, thin, athletic and blond. Guess which one gets the guy.

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