QOTW: Keeping Personal Bias from Your Stories

4 Aug

This week’s question is from Ramani, who asks:

How do you keep personal bias from your stories? Like, I’ve noticed that my relationship with my mother often reflects on my character’s mother.

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Interesting question. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that issue… Maybe because my character’s lives are so very different from my own? Also, I never model my characters after real-life people, so maybe that’s another reason why bias has never come into play. For example, all the mother figures in my novels are drastically different from my mom (like, they’re cruel, filled with secret pasts, or money-hungry while my mom is loving, honest, and generous).

That said, my attitudes might make appearances. I feel strongly about the environment and global climate change, so if I ever wrote an MC in a position where those issues mattered, I’m pretty sure my protagonists would feel the same way I do! And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing–like, if it was appropriate to the story, I wouldn’t try to keep that personal bias out.

I think as long as your bias isn’t negatively affecting your story, then there’s no need to worry! If it is, then clearly your conscious of it and can change it! Remember, in the end, YOU control your characters–not the other way around. 🙂

Susan Dennard

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I’m with Sooz in that I don’t really have that problem either — I generally steer clear of basing characters on people I know in real life. Fiction is about exploration, and what fun is that if you’re just dredging up things you see and experience on a daily basis? Obviously it’s good to write about what you know, but it’s just as important to use your imagination. Honestly, you know yourself pretty well, and the great thing about writing is that it’s fluid — you can always go back and delete any personal bias with the hit of a button. If it suits the character, leave it. If it’s definitely you speaking through them, then it’s time to reevaluate.

That being said, my characters definitely tend to share similar likes and dislikes with me. All of my characters hate bananas, dress well, and listen to great music 😉

Sammy Bina

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I totally agree with Sammy and Sooz–very rarely do I base characters on people I know in real life (though I mighttt have used some names of particularly awful people for villains that meet untimely ends in my novels). Some of my novels or scenes, however, DO come from personal experiences–not the exact details of those events, but the feelings behind them.

My characters all share SOME things in common with me, mostly in terms of their quirks, dietary habits (like me, Celaena, the heroine in QUEEN OF GLASS, abhors eating fish), and musical preferences. But I also like to make heroines that are vastly different from me. In A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES, my YA “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, Feyre, the heroine, is nearly illiterate. As someone who can’t LIVE without books, it was really fun and challenging for me to write about a girl who grew up without the comfort of books/stories. It made me, as a writer and a person, really re-examine what life would be like without those things–and without the privilege of an education. It was both fascinating and a bit terrifying.

Like Sammy said, though, fiction is about exploration! There’s nothing WRONG with your heroine having a similar relationship with her mother, but don’t be afraid to branch out. You might discover some new things about yourself–and your writing–in the process! 🙂

Sarah Maas

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I am very careful while writing to never force my own feelings and opinions on my characters. I hate it when authors give their characters the same exact social and political outlook as themselves; it’s a type of self-insertion behavior I associate with immature writing (fan fiction anyone?). Also it can frequently read as preaching, which is obviously a big no-no. Note: I’m talking about really obvious preaching, not occasionally sharing some of your attitudes with your characters, as in Susan’s case 🙂

I had to learn to take a lot of political stuff out of Nameless just because it’s not interesting to anyone else; if they want to learn about gender equality issues hopefully the story will inspire them to learn more, not my preaching in the novel.

But it’s not exactly like not preaching is some huge sacrifice. I love getting into different perspectives with my characters, and of course you can always apply details from real life into the anecdotes that explain why they feel a certain way. For example, in my YA zombie book, Milani’s father was stationed at the military base at Pearl Harbor. My own father was in the military, so I was able to draw character similarities between our fathers just based on their military training, even though her father and mine are vastly different people.

I think it’s fine that you’re exploring your relationship with your mother through your characters, as long as you stay true to the character and don’t turn the story into a platform for preaching, or get into the habit where you insert so much from your real life that it hijacks your plot. 🙂

Savannah Foley

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Do you find your own viewpoints and biases sneaking into your stories?

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13 Responses to “QOTW: Keeping Personal Bias from Your Stories”

  1. Cheyenne Hill August 5, 2011 at 5:55 AM #

    The majority of my writing is fantasy/sci-fi, but I’m of the school of thought that everything that’s happened to you, every experience and person you’ve met, will in one way or another inform what you create. Even if you’re not even conscious of it. Even if the characters are totally different in speech, description, age; every now and then a situation or conversation or trait might pop up that came from something real. I find that nearly impossible to avoid. That’s why people watching is great for stories. But I’m talking about parallel conversations, experiences, or maybe someone I saw in town had a certain look to them, so that gets incorporated – not copying someone from real life and plopping them in a book word-for-word. That’s more like a memoir I guess 😉

    But because I’ve had some seriously bizarre experiences in my life, I found the best way to deal with them was to write about them. It was therapeutic at the time, but instead of, as I said, just copying and pasting real people into my story, I took the essence of what made some things bizarre and put them into my characters. What I enjoyed about it was taking it twenty steps further. A situation might have been somewhat similar to something real, but my characters deal with it in totally opposite ways to how it happened in real life, making everything that happens much more dramatic (and interesting) than it really was (hopefully). I like to see what my characters do, how different people react to the same situation, and in that respect it has only the basic idea based in reality. I don’t see a problem if your character’s mother has similar traits to the author’s own, because surely that’s not the entirety of the story. I think there’s a line between writing what you know, and *only* writing what you know.

    (And let’s be honest: I don’t think most people know what it’s like to ride a dragon or see dead people walking around 😉

  2. Rowenna August 5, 2011 at 9:05 AM #

    This is a really thoughtful question, and while the LTWF ladies gave great answers, I think there’s an element to your question that’s trickier. You mention the example of the relationship with your mother, and I think that’s stabbing to the heart of it–we experience only one relationship with our parents, with siblings, with school. When we imagine our characters in different situations than us, making them feel authentic when we’ve only known ONE mother-daughter interaction or ONE first day of school can be tricky. We assume that things are universally true because they’re true for us–it takes work to step outside that and think, “Wait, I was super-excited to start college. Is everyone? What would someone shy think? Someone who’d never moved?” The awareness that our experiences are unique is the first step–something I have to remind myself! It’s easier once you KNOW where your assumptions and biases are–so it sounds like you have a great start 🙂

    That said–sometimes I think it’s ok to let experience inform our characters. The father-daughter relationship in my latest book is definitely informed by my awesome dad, and it wouldn’t have worked any other way 🙂

    • savannahjfoley August 5, 2011 at 12:10 PM #

      You’re absolutely right. Writers have to step outside their own experiences while using their own experiences to lend authenticity. It’s a hard line to walk. 🙂

  3. authorguy August 5, 2011 at 9:10 AM #

    I have said many times in my blog posts that fiction, especially fantasy fiction, is a great venue for discussing philosophical issues, since abstract concepts can be given some degree of ‘reality’ and examined in a way that makes more sense. In that sense I think a work of fiction can’t help but reveal the author if it’s well done.
    As for real people, I did that once, in a story I wrote for a contest winner (I was the prize). I was a bit nervous, wondering if she would like it and my portrayal of her character. I have on many occasions used real events in my stories, corroborative details to lend verisimilitude, but never personalities. In fact, given my admittedly-obsessive desire to not do things I’ve seen done before, I would regard using real-world people as cheating. I lampooned bureaucrats before I met one. Now I’m more likely to try to make one heroic, if only because it’s harder to do. Wait a minute, that’s what I am doing in my WIP. A little.
    In some respects this question addresses an issue I just posted about yesterday. The issue is when fictional things are modeled on real things in the world, how close the links between them are or should be. While I think they are distinct, I also think most people would read into them.

    • savannahjfoley August 5, 2011 at 12:08 PM #

      I once wrote an article about my new community when my family moved to a suburb of Chicago… it got published in a teen lit magazine my high school carried, and I had to go around the school and collect every edition because I’d kind of lambasted the whole town. I called it Stepford, lol. My mom was horrified.

  4. Asia Morela August 5, 2011 at 10:16 AM #

    I think I have a different perspective from you guys. I tend to think that I *always* model my characters after real-life people, most of the time after myself. Does that make them all similar? Nope. I have changed a lot in my life, I have experienced very contrary feelings, and I’ve had to hide or sacrifice parts of myself when it came to choosing who I wanted to be, or appear to be. Fiction for me is a way to dig up all these secret, hidden recesses of me that will never see the light of day in real life.

    So it’s kind of the opposite for me: I will usually make up every single objective detail (physical appearance, social situation, likes, dislikes, habits, etc.), and what I actually “model” after real-life persons is feelings, reactions, behaviours. It helps me find personality consistency even while I write fictional characters in fictional situations.

    For example, I wanted to have a slightly crippled hero in one of my short stories, but because it was romance and I wanted to fit in the codes, I had to make him masculine enough: tough, strong-willed, the way typical romance heroes are. I wasn’t sure how to do that without making his character inconsistent, until I thought of some men I know in real life who’ve had many accidents and surgeries (they’re not cripple, but some things they lost they’ll never get back), precisely because they are hotheads who are attracted to danger. So I definitely tried and modeled my character after this personality type; but who could see anyone of my entourage in a limping English Regency lord with a physique out of my fantasies?

    So, in the end, I don’t think it’s a problem if all your characters have similar type relationships with their mothers. At least you can’t go wrong where feelings and personalities are concerned. But then you’ve got to be creative on the outside: for example, a relationship in which the mother is weak and guilt-trips her child will look and sound very different in a wealthy or working-class environment, in a historical or contemporary setting. It will be conveyed by different situations, elements, and will involve different stakes.

    • savannahjfoley August 5, 2011 at 12:11 PM #

      Did you ever see that cartoon movie about the girl heroine who meets up with the hot, blonde hero, and then it turns out he’s blind? And she’s all like, ‘omg let me help you!’ and he’s like ‘no way, I ninja-jump through this swamp, I’m totally cool.’?

      • Kae August 5, 2011 at 10:28 PM #

        Quest for Camelot!!! <333

  5. marykateleahy August 5, 2011 at 11:43 AM #

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing to put your personal bias in the work. In fact I think it can be good, as long as you aren’t writing characters that are essentially clones of each other. All of my characters have at least one element of my personality in them, and I often adapt stories from my life into their story/backstory.

    There’s a difference between “preaching” your bias though, and just letting the reader discover it. If you approach it with a point of view and use your story as a parable to get it across I think that’s great. Your character’s relationship with their mother is probably going to be very real because of your injecting your real life experience into it.

    If you think it’s negatively impacting your story then I would be concerned, but if you are just worried because you think you aren’t supposed to do that I wouldn’t worry. Great question 🙂

  6. Stacy Green August 5, 2011 at 12:12 PM #

    So far, I’m able to keep my personal bias out of my writing. My attitudes will make an appearance at times, as Susan said, but I work hard to create characters different from myself, so maybe that’s part of it.

  7. SY August 5, 2011 at 2:38 PM #

    I don’t purposely put bias into the characters. I write them and see certain things after the fact, or things that could be taken the wrong way. For example, if a parent has died it’s usually the mother. (I don’t know why, but I’ve noticed it and have had to consciously NOT remove the mother from the equation)

  8. Myra August 5, 2011 at 3:03 PM #

    Eww, bananas! Totally agree with you, Sammy–they are DIS-GUS-TING. 😉 Haha.

    I never deliberately set out to base a character on someone I know in real life. But sometimes my frustrations at someone slips into the pages, and I keep it if it’s convenient for the story. In my current WIP, which I started a few months ago, my frustrations at my sister (at a time when I was really angry with her) emerged on the page. There was a lot of aggravation on the side of the MC and her sister being oblivious, lol. I’m not nearly as angry with my sister now, but I’m keeping that aspect in the WIP, because it complicates my MC and her sister’ relationship even more than if the sister was just there to be a pleasant side-character wishing her well before she left.

  9. kaye August 6, 2011 at 12:38 AM #

    I think I pretty much keep my biases out of my writing. I mean, my dad and I don’t really get along very well, but most of my characters have good relationships with their dads. (Except for the ones with dead dads…ohmygod, I never realized how many of my characters have dead dads…they were nice before they died, I swear!)

    But one thing I have noticed that sort of affects my writing is that as a vegetarian, I find it weird writing mcs who eat meat. But obviously it would be a wee bit strange if all my characters were vegetarians, so I just tend to avoid mentioning what my characters eat in general. I don’t think it really affects the story much, though.

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