Don’t. Okay, this sounds like very definitive advice about whether or not to make your main character a writer and obviously there are going to be exceptions. But as a general rule, my first piece of advice about this is always going to be NOT to make your main character a writer unless it is absolutely crucial to the story.
Why? Because while there are plenty of examples of writers as main characters in fiction that work beautifully, there are so many more examples of writers as main characters that don’t work well at all or who have all their life problems solved by the publication of their writing. And as every published writer will tell you, publication usually solves nothing – especially not financial issues. Most writers have a second job to pay the bills.
For a change, today I’m going to use movies as examples of what I’m talking about instead of novels. Mostly because I realised I own or have seen a lot of movies with writers as main characters.
It’s a common piece of advice to beginning writers – write what you know. Pfft! Most beginning writers don’t know writing at all. To learn it, they have to undertake the journey.
And once they’ve been on that journey, if all they know is writing, they’re going to run out of ideas quick smart. Sometimes, a great story requires a little – or a lot – of research. Sometimes that research might have to be about an alternative career. (In Enemies Closer, my main characters were a Marine, an FBI agent, a CIA agent and a weapons designer and I had to spend probably half of all my research time for the entire book just making sure these characters actually looked like they knew what they were doing at work.)
There are so many wonderful and varied careers that characters can have that if your character doesn’t absolutely have to be a writer, I can’t imagine why you’d want to torment them with that lot in life.
People who don’t know any better imagine that writers have all the free time in the world and people who should know better (yes, writers, this means you) sometimes use that incorrect assumption to create a character who doesn’t need to be at work from nine to five.
Writers (disciplined writers, anyway) actually spend a lot of time being unavailable because of their writing. I certainly wouldn’t have time (or the skills) to solve a murder. And if that’s what you want your main character to do, why not make them a detective and save yourself and your audience a lot of time and heartache?
Lack of Imagination
Some people can’t figure out how to tell a story unless a fictional writer is telling it. It’s just so unnecessary. All stories must be narrated – first person, second person, third person, omniscient – but there’s absolutely no reason for any of these perspectives to be narrated by a writer.
Exceptions to the Rule
Some of my favourite movies are the stories behind the greatest writers or pieces of writing. A film I can watch over and over again is RKO 281 about the journey taken by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz to create what has frequently been described as the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane.
Also falling into this category are Becoming Jane about Jane Austen, Miss Potter about Beatrix Potter, Bright Star about John Keats and Finding Neverland about J.M. Barrie.
*Stories about Writing
Obviously it would be difficult to write a story about writing without writers. One of the wackiest and yet most charming is Adaptation, containing a fictionalised version of the celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his completely fictional twin brother, Donald, as he struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean into a film. This became the story after he realised it would be impossible to adapt but I suspect this is a once only story idea.
*High Concept Stories
I mostly can’t watch Will Ferrell movies but the definite exception to this is Stranger Than Fiction, the story of Harold Crick, who begins to hear his life being narrated everywhere he goes and realises he is a character in a book and is going to die at the end of it unless he can convince the writer, Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), not to.
Ruby Sparks also falls into this category, about a writer who creates and controls a woman simply by writing it down on the page, and while I don’t consider it as successful as Stranger Than Fiction, it’s a good example of a high concept story about writing.
*The Fact that the Character is a Writer is Almost Secondary
Here are a few examples:
Misery – yes, the main character is a writer but this story is a commentary on fame and fans so he could have just as easily been an actor or a model or a Kardashian.
Dan in Real Life – yes, the main character is a writer but the more important fact is that he’s a widowed father caring for three daughters so he could have just as easily been a lawyer or a builder or a businessman.
So I Married an Axe Murderer – yes, the main character is a writer (a performance poet, more accurately) but it was just an opportunity for Mike Meyers to give us a few kooky moments that amount to less than a minute of actual screen time and don’t have anything to do with the overall storyline.
These sound like rather a lot of exceptions, probably because when you get it right, you get it right and you can break as many rules as you want. But before you do, I want you to think long and hard about whether it’s absolutely pivotal to the story you want to tell – like the journalists chasing the story in State of Play or the just okay novelist passing off someone else’s work as his own in The Words – or if you’re just being indulgent by essentially writing a hardly veiled version of yourself into your work.