The Accidental Mirror: What Flawed Characters Reveal About Ourselves

Running solves most of my problems. Bad day at work? Fight with the family? Mad at the world in general? After half a dozen sweaty miles, I reach a place where I’m better equipped to deal. It’s especially helpful for working through story issues. My feet go on autopilot, carrying me not through neighborhoods and park trails, but through the landscape of my own imagination. Sometimes I get lost. Like last Sunday. Trotting along in the morning air, I mulled over options for a particular scene in my novel-in-progress and how my protagonist, the tough veteran Petra, would react.

What would Petra do if that happened–

Impact jolted my toes. I lurched forward, balance awry. Gravity seized me in one of those strange, slow-motion falls where an improbable number of thoughts race through your mind before you hit. I’m falling! Tuck in, try to go sideways! Don’t fall on your hands, you’ll fracture a wrist! Protect your head! I rolled on the asphalt like Neymar on the World Cup pitch and thudded to a stop on my back, staring dazed into the bright July sky.

Well, crap.

A few heartbeats cleared the adrenaline, and I sat up to assess the damage. I’d managed to take most of the impact on one hip—it would raise a noble bruise, but nothing dire. Scrapes ran down my elbow and thigh. A constellation of ruby cuts welled across my shredded palms. My Garmin blinked confusedly at me, apparently incapable of satellite-tracking a face-plant (remember this when the robot revolution begins). The display indicated I was less than two miles into what was supposed to be my weekend long run.

What would Petra do?

I peeled myself off the pavement, retrieved my hat and sunglasses, and ran another seven miles. Endorphins mingled with the pain, an alchemical mixture that further thinned the mental veil between me and my heroine. Ideas flowed as freely as the blood trickling down my wrists. I arrived home with a dozen new scenes to draft…once my fingers were fit to touch a keyboard.

Storytelling must be some strange, ancient magic, I thought, hissing as peroxide seethed over my wounds. Summoning these spirits requires blood sacrifice.

Creative writing is a contact sport.

It wasn’t the first time Petra beat me up. About a month ago, I did a kickboxing workout while imagining myself in one of the story’s fight scenes. The heavy bag transformed into a shadowy villain while I ducked and jabbed so enthusiastically that I peeled my knuckles raw (through the gloves, mind you). Slipping into her perspective is easiest when I’m exercising, because that’s something we have in common: fitness as therapy. We push our bodies’ limits, hoping physical discipline will engender psychological discipline and keep the scary parts of our minds under control. Of course, the story takes only a few chapters to disrupt Petra’s carefully calibrated world and force her into a dangerous new one. Is that why she’s trying to punish me? Os is it because I accidentally saddled her with some of my own flaws?

Petra is not alone in her plight. Reviewing my oeuvre to date, her fictional sisters also inherited my imperfections. Amaya in Blue Karma shares my stubborn self-reliance and my complicated sibling relationship. Female characters in Syzygy embody a pantheon of my less-desirable qualities: Skye possesses my knack for identifying and exploiting people’s weaknesses; Hazel inherited my brash impatience; Willow exhibits my ruthless ambition; Juniper, my lack of empathy; and Lily, my wolf-kin, takes fierce pride in her independence because she secretly hates how badly she needs her pack. The worst parts of my personality are extracted, exaggerated, and exported into a new vessel. Each character becomes an accidental mirror, highlighting my own faults.

I didn’t intentionally craft any of those characters in my own image. Common traits arose organically, passed on like a hereditary disease to my creative offspring. Perhaps it’s the authorial inclination to ‘write what you know’: intimate knowledge of these quirks makes me feel I can portray them convincingly, so they find their way into the story. Or maybe it’s a subconscious exploration of self-improvement. Imaginary fights manifest as real-life injuries not because Petra seeks revenge through me, but because I seek absolution through her.

When I step into her identity–or that of any of my protagonists–I get a different view of my own. It’s like letting someone else read my manuscript drafts, so their objective gaze can critique what needs work. Corrective red ink scrawls from my veins to remind me there’s always room for revision. My near-future stories indulge my hope that imperfect things can change…including me. Watching characters overcome my familiar flaws gives me courage to do the same.

Did a character’s triumph over personal problems ever resonate with you, or inspire you to change? Let me know in the comments!

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.