Ask the Editor: Can I Base my Hero on Myself?

Dear Alex,
I’m an interesting person with an interesting job, and my friends love it when I tell them stories about things that have happened to me. I see nothing wrong with fictionalizing all of this, and writing a novel loosely based on my life. And if the hero of my novel closely resembles myself, that will just make him easier to write! Aren’t all heroes just idealized versions of the writer anyway? What’s wrong with putting more of myself into my hero?

Hi Paul!

It’s great that you find inspiration from your own life, and that you enjoy sharing your stories with other people. We’ve all had interesting experiences that we want to include in our novels. However, it gets tricky when you model the hero after yourself.

These characters go by the special name of “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu.” That’s shorthand for a character who’s a stand-in for the author, or a version of the author that he wishes he could be.

He’ll usually be perfect: brave, smart, capable, and very handsome. If he has flaws, they’re minor, quirky, and never get in the way of solving his problems. The author will sometimes put the hero into circumstances that mirror his own life, but often the hero is given adventures the author wishes he could have. There’s a lot of wish fulfillment going on here.

The problem is, what’s often wish fulfillment for the author is not wish fulfillment for the reader. And the author is never going to be able to see the hero clearly, because the hero is him. Revisions become a nightmare as the author is unwilling to make the hero do things that he, himself, wouldn’t do, even if that’s what the story needs.

Even worse, the author often spends a lot of effort telling readers what a great person Gary Stu is, but never really showing us. We’ll hear he’s a great athlete, but never see him play sports. Or the author will tell us he’s witty, but we never see him make a joke. Mary Sue’s friends constantly tell her how awesome she is, and for some reason, the male characters often feel protective toward her. Either that, or they all want to date her. This character is usually described by the reader as “annoying.” And it’s because she has no real flaws, no real personality, and doesn’t ever make mistakes.

But the real problem with Mary Sue and Gary Stu is that they are not suited for the story they’re in. 

Plot and character always go hand in hand. You need the perfect heroine for your plot, and you need the perfect plot that’s going to test your heroine, and help her grow.

You want to develop the main character into someone who’s uniquely qualified to achieve the story goal. There should only be one person who can achieve this goal. They should have something either innately inside them or learned from their past that makes them the perfect heroine for this specific story.

At the same time, you need to craft a plot that’s going to challenge your heroine in the exact way she needs to be challenged. The plot is going to push all of her hot buttons, making her dig deep inside herself to grow and change. It’s this new growth that will ultimately help her overcome the antagonist and achieve her goal.

Therefore, you need to build heroes from the ground up, making sure they fit the plot at hand. Think about a Hollywood casting director. If they’re making the next James Bond movie, they’re looking for Daniel Craig or Aaron Taylor-Johnson, they’re not looking for Pee Wee Herman. But if they’re making a screwball comedy, Pee Wee Herman is exactly who they need.

It’s fun to imagine ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, fighting bad guys and saving the day. But often, the story you’re writing demands a very different kind of hero. 

So go ahead and make your hero strong and brave. But also flawed and bruised and messed-up in some significant ways. Make him the exact hero that’s going to be tailor-made for your plot. Just don’t make him you.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, a book that shows you how to revise your novel the easy way.

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