From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach
I know I have mentioned Norman Mailer before, but I can’t find where and in any case, I’d like to go into more detail on his approach than I did originally (I’m pretty sure). Specifically, his realization that you can use an emotion you understand to inform a character in a situation you’re unfamiliar with. He said that although he’d never been a soldier, he knew what it was like to be in fear for his life. He used that emotional appreciation in his debut novel, The Naked and Dead.
Applying the Mailer approach
This is a great way to use events which have happened in your own life to inform your writing without necessarily recreating the original scene. Let’s work through the process.
- Consider a character you’re having trouble with. You can’t seem to get the feel of the persona. Say you’ve created an alien on an alien spaceship. Needless to say, you’ve never experienced this situation.
- List what you think isn’t working with the character. I don’t care about him. He seems stilted and unreactive.
- Pick the biggest problem. Let’s take stilted and unreactive. On the one hand, the stereotype of an alien might exhibit just such qualities. On the other, readers being alienated from your alien doesn’t foretell gripping involvement in your novel. They need to identify or at least empathize. What do you want the character to be? Spontaneous and curious.
- Look into your own life. Take a moment to think about a time—a specific time—when you were spontaneous and curious. On a camping trip when you were ten? The first time you went to a museum? When you turned the car around and went in the opposite direction than planned? Whatever it is, drop into the scene again. Take in all the sensuous details—sounds, smells, images. And tap into how you felt. Excited? Calm? Floating?
- Apply to the problem. Take that compendium of feelings and sensations and write from that space, but about your character. How does he feel (show, please)? What does he do? How does his alien nature change, warp, or enhance the feelings you had? Let it flow.
It’s not foolproof
I’m not saying this always works but it can kick you out of a stuck place into something more productive. You’ll know if it’s working if your writing feels emotionally true, even given the alien setting.
In addition, this approach is somewhat mechanical just to illustrate the point. If you can conjure the feelings in your own life and apply them to the character rather than going through these steps, by all means do it. The more organic you can make the process, the more likely it will live on the page.
But sometimes, using auto-biographical bits in your fiction can cause trouble. Next post.