Nothing Personal: Character Creation and Being Your Own Person

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by Ruby Lang, author of Open House

A few weeks ago I talked to someone who really wanted me to be my characters.

We’d been sitting on the playground benches watching our kids run around, swapping stories about how we met our spouses. When I told her about my first date with my husband, how we’d walked around the city for hours and hours talking and laughing, losing track of time, she said, “No wonder you write romance.”

And then she made to leap to insisting that my books—which she’d never read—were probably about me.

I thought about Open House, my upcoming enemies-to-lovers story (I’ve never been in that situation—all my nemeses remain nemeses) featuring a real estate broker heroine (never been a broker) doing battle with a gardener-accountant hero (never been an accountant) over an urban garden built on a valuable lot.

I stated confidently that I did not write about myself. She didn’t believe me.

My friend meant well. She probably intended it as a compliment about how well I told my anecdote, but it was still troubling. I told her repeatedly I really did make my stories up—I thought of character, motivation, setting, I strove to make things seem real—but she kept asking if I was sure that my characters weren’t me.

It started to feel like a gentler version of the kind of phenomenon many female romance writers experience where readers assume the heroines are self-inserts, a reflection of the writer’s life or fantasies. There’s always someone asking smirkingly if the sex scenes are drawn from personal experience, always someone offering to help you practice.

Once, I overheard the real estate broker who was trying to sell our neighbor’s place remark loudly in our echo-y halls, “There are a lot of writers in this building. Even a romance writer, and—” he gave a laugh heavy with innuendo “—you know what they’re like.”

For this obnoxious man, there was no separation between what I wrote about and my actual existence.

I like my characters. I like how their lives end up. But the point is, I don’t live their lives: I make them.

My husband, who used to write crime novels, wasn’t mentioned by the loudmouth broker. In fact, my husband has never been asked if his books are drawn from experience, if his characters are him. No one questions him about how many people he’s killed, who he’s double-crossed, or whether he’s embezzled any money lately. Maybe they’re afraid of what he might do to them—Crime writers, you know what they’re like—but I’m pretty sure fear is not the issue.

Romance fiction isn’t often respected because the work of women isn’t respected. And in a way, when people assume that every story that a romance writer writes is limited to the author’s experience or life, they indicate they think the novelists don’t really employ literary craft or technique: we aren’t so much writing as passively transcribing.

I actually have another authorial career: I’m also a non-fiction writer. Under my real name, Mindy Hung, I’ve written about romance novels, notably for the quirky, now defunct website The Toast. I’ve also had personal essays published in Salon, and The New York Times, among others. (In fact, one of my essays is included in the revised and updated Modern Love anthology. It does not have a happy ending.)

In other words, I do occasionally write about myself, but I label it non-fiction.

I don’t consider one kind of writing more important than the other, and I don’t consider one easier than the other. All have their challenges. For me, the difficulty with non-fiction pieces is getting context right and conveying the happenings or ideas coherently. For romance fiction writing, my struggle is constructing a story that makes sense emotionally and logically both from scene to scene and globally. I’m world building, character building, everything building. I’m actively thinking of what’s right for every piece of dialogue and description.

There is nothing passive about what I do in either type of writing.

I wish I could say I had a perfect response for my acquaintance, the one who insisted my life was my novels. I wish that in one pithy sentence I opened her eyes to the beauty and craft behind these books. In other words, I wish I could write a kind of a happy-ever-after for this particular moment.

But life, unlike fiction, doesn’t respond well to my attempts at revision.

About Open House:

Open House by Ruby LangLove can take root where you least expect it.

Tyson Yang never imagined that one day he’d be the de facto spokesperson for an illegal community garden. But when the once-rat-infested-but-now-thriving Harlem lot goes up for sale, Ty can’t just let all their hard work get plowed under.

Even if he is irresistibly drawn to the lovely but infuriatingly stubborn real estate associate.

Magda Ferrer’s family is already convinced this new job will be yet another flop in her small but growing list of career path failures. But her student debt isn’t going anywhere, and selling her uncle’s historic town house and the lot nearby means a chance to get some breathing room.

Ty is her charming rival, her incorrigible nemesis, the handsome roadblock to her success.

Until one hot Harlem night blurs the hard line drawn between them, and the seeds of possibility in this rocky garden blossom into love…

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2 thoughts on “Nothing Personal: Character Creation and Being Your Own Person”

  1. Charish Reid says:

    Thank you for writing this! I’ve had this awkward conversation more than once and no matter how loud I am, I still get that knowing grin

    1. Nan De Plume says:

      I think every writer, regardless of genre, gets some of the same annoying questions and patronizing remarks including, “But, are you making a living at it?” or “Oh, that’s a nice hobby. But what’s your *real* job?” Ad nauseam. Combine that with a general lack of respect for the erotica and romance genres, and it’s no wonder such authors are subject to even worse comments.

      I think the attitude toward writers not having a “real job” becomes especially pronounced with romance writers. It’s bad enough when people think writers are just hobbyists, loafers, or whatever else. But people who don’t regard writing as a real job are probably in the mindset of, “Ugh, those romance writers. Some job. They just get to write silly scenarios and sex scenes all day. Someone who can come up with all those crazy situations for their characters *must* be writing thinly veiled versions of their own depraved lives.” Although in fairness, Stephen King said he’s been asked a bunch of weird questions too- mostly about what a messed up childhood he must have had to be able to write horror so effectively.

      Thanks for the post, Ms. Lang!

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