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Basing my protagonist on myself

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(I asked another question about this novella here.)

In a novella I'm writing, I explore the lives of a young Hispanic woman, Ramona, and her brother, Rafael, in an Orwellian-esque future America where Hispanic immigrants and citizens alike are persecuted. Ramona, give or take, is me, while Rafael is my brother. Their fears and experiences closely mirror my and my brother's own, with a bit of dramatic exaggeration (for example, we have undocumented relatives, but inside the novella, these undocumented relatives have been imprisoned or killed).

I can see ways this could strengthen my characters, by making them hit so close to home so I can really understand and showcase their feelings and thoughts. Are there weaknesses to this?

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2 answers

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There are pitfalls into which you are more likely to fall if you base your protagonists on yourself and/or people you care about. These pitfalls can trouble you regardless, but if you're basing a character on yourself, you need to be particularly aware of them. Here are some, in no particular order:

  • Mary-Sue characters: how self-critical are you? Are you giving your character your weaknesses, your worse traits, your mistakes; or are you writing the character as the kind of person you would have liked to be? Each character needs to be ultimately human, not super-perfect.
  • Wish fulfilment: what happens to your characters - does it follow from the story, or does it happen because you want it for your insert-character? Does Prince Charming fall in love with your character because she's earned it, or because you want a Prince Charming for yourself?
  • Nothing bad can happen: are you comfortable having bad things happen to your characters - things that might traumatise them? Are you comfortable killing them if your plot calls for it? Or do you love them so much, because they are "you", that you protect them from the full impact of what the plot can wreak on their heads?

That said, to some extent of course you'll be putting something of yourself and of people around you into your characters. Little details you observe in people around you can make your characters come to life and be unique. Your understanding of good and bad, of how people are, how they think, how one might respond to a situation and how one should respond - all those things inevitably seep into your writing. So it's not a question of "whether", but of "how much".

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In addition to Galastel's answer, I would add the non-writing worry: People that know you, including your brother and family and possibly friends, may read your book and recognize you, themselves, and other characters in the book. Correctly or mistakenly. And then take you to task for putting them in prison, killing them, or making them say something mean or criminal or sexual, or do something "they would never do."

I think every writer puts something of themselves into characters, perhaps exaggerates their own strengths and weaknesses, but for the purpose of the story MUST invent antagonistic elements and kick their hero in the head once in awhile. (At least once).

Non-writers may not understand this, and think if you are going to write a fictional account of them, you need to leave all the bad stuff (fictional or real) out of it. That you shouldn't be airing dirty family laundry in a book that millions of people might read.

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