I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life doesn’t spare us. –Jesmyn Ward
Back in 2012, I started writing my first fantasy/sci-fi novel. I chatted about the characters with my friends, enjoyed coming up with scads of different plot lines, and experimented with all kinds of tropes and techniques. But despite the effort I went to, my manuscript stayed in a constant state of flux. Beta readers, though quick to offer support and encouragement, couldn’t tell me why. Not until year five did I begin to see the truth.
Yes, my plot had flaws. But people seemed to relate to my characters—or rather, the versions I put on display. I loved working with these fictional beings I’d created. So why did they keep morphing? And why could I never bear to hurt (or heal) them in a way that drove the story forward?
The answer was simple: I was clinging to them and the situations they represented.
How Do You Know If You’re Emotionally Dependent on Your Characters?
Before I go any further, I need to clarify that connecting with characters is not unhealthy—it can be extremely cathartic for readers and writers alike. You can find hundreds of guides on this topic because fiction needs to engage people emotionally to be effective. I’m also not talking about modeling your protagonist’s quirks after your own, or treating your characters like friends in everyday conversation. All writers have moments when they’re so absorbed in a project that they seem a little crazy. No one hesitates to joke about it either.
The trouble arises when a writer subconsciously uses her characters to process her own life, which stunts their growth (and her own, to some extent). This isn’t connection. It’s dependence. Here are some signs that you may be falling into this pattern:
- You overshare about your characters, believing that, somehow, if people understand your characters, they’ll understand you. (Alternatively, you undershare, keeping your characters close to your chest lest people judge them—and you—too harshly.)
- When someone critiques your characters, even lovingly, you become defensive. Nobody can possibly know them better than you.
- You struggle to make progress on your story unless you’re in a certain emotional state, or you specifically turn to it when you’re facing challenges.
- You actively project yourself onto your characters, and their relationships tend to mirror your own.
- You’re uninterested in characters who don’t meet your emotional needs, even though they’re vital to your plot.
- You purposefully throw your characters into conflicts that you’re wrestling with, but you don’t allow them to reach any solutions.
If you feel exposed right now, remember that you’re not alone. This issue is more common than you might expect, and every habit I listed above is one I’ve personally slipped into.
Because I revolved the majority of my characters around personal problems I was dealing with, they couldn’t move on without me. I kept dragging them through the same scenarios, which wrecked the pacing and impeded new plot points. Additionally, because human minds change depending on what mood we’re in, who we’re with, and which phase of the moon is shining down on us, my characters’ thoughts and emotions shifted with mine. Ultimately, I’d built their personalities on shaky ground.
I realize that this subject may be triggering for some people, so let me temper my advice with a note of reassurance: at one point or another, most of us have written a story that counts as emotional support, and nothing is wrong with that. As I mentioned above, gut-wrenching stuff is therapeutic. But, generally, you’ll need to distance yourself from the narrative to draw readers closer to it. Otherwise a book can feel uncomfortably personal, as if you’ve stumbled across someone’s diary. Readers are perceptive and can sense when you’re focused more on yourself than them.
Beware of Trying to Fix the Story Before You’re Ready
If you plan to eventually publish your emotional support story, you’ll need to ask yourself soul-searching questions before attempting any revisions. Thinking through the answers may be painful, because you’ll be pushing yourself out of a place that’s given you comfort. So be as raw and honest as you need to be.
- How old were you when you started the story, and what was happening in your life then?
- During the time that you’ve had the story, what has it meant to you?
- Have any of the circumstances that are tied to the story changed?
- Are you still relying on the story now?
If you suspect that you haven’t fully healed, proceed with caution. Recently, I thought I’d be able to edit my own emotional support story—but I soon realized that I needed more time. Don’t wrench yourself away from your story prematurely. Allow it to be an outlet where you can explore the problems you need help with. And, in the meantime, craft other stories that are shareable.
How to Avoid Emotional Dependence
After spending all that time on a story that went nowhere, you may feel like a bad writer who will never be capable of producing publishable material. But that’s a lie. You’ve learned valuable skills that your new stories will benefit from. And now that you’re self-aware, you can stop the cycle from repeating itself. (Unless you want to write an emotional support story, which is fine as long as it’s a conscious choice.)
I have a few final tips for ensuring that you don’t fall into the same mistake again:
- Examine your motivations for including each character. Do they serve your story’s themes and plot? If not, why do they exist?
- Try to create unique characters that don’t fit your typical archetype (if you have one). Stretching outside of your comfort zone always has advantages but can be especially useful here.
- Reverse your mindset from inward to outward. How do you hope your audience will learn from and connect with these characters?
- If you incorporate real-life issues that you’re grappling with, change enough details that the story doesn’t seem autobiographical. Opt for a point of view that’s very different from yours, or significantly alter the context.
Finding the Line
As complex, emotional beings, our personal heartaches will often leak into our writing, and that can lend more authenticity to our characters and their worlds. Though the distinction between connection and dependence can be difficult to identify, with practice you’ll be able to recognize when you’ve crossed a boundary.
My own emotional support novel is in the corner right now, waiting patiently for the day when I can shape it into something greater. Meanwhile, I’ve devoted my attention to short stories, a multigenerational family series, and a standalone murder/romance (is that a genre?). Each one teaches me new ways to strengthen my craft. And because I have my emotional support novel where I can pour all my personal drama, the characters in my other projects are more independent from it.
Above all, be willing to do the hard work but be kind to yourself throughout the process. Self-awareness is the first step, and after that, the journey becomes a personal one that only you will truly understand. But isn’t that half the beauty of creating art?
Quinlyn Shaughnessy’s writing journey began at age eleven with her first blog about American Girl dolls. In 2010, she discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that novel writing was her calling (along with giving NaNo free advertising by plastering posters on her walls and discussing it with everyone she met). Since then, she’s forayed into short stories, poetry, and professional blogging. Although she’s made a commitment to try writing every genre at some point, her favorites are historical fiction, biography, sci-fi, and YA lit. She holds a BA in Mass Communication & Media Studies and plans on going back to school for a graduate program. When she’s not working at her media literacy internship, she enjoys watching TV, singing, pretending she’s going to take up painting, and rearranging her desk. You can reach her at email@example.com if you have questions about how to make character playlists on Spotify or just want to say hi.