It’s a trope we’re all warned against. The ‘coming-of-age’ novel that is in fact a thinly veiled lament on how cruel the world is to the author, a misunderstood genius who only does drugs in order to connect with a higher state of being. Bleurgh. Not to say that there aren’t exemplary takes on this trope too, but most of the time it’s bleurgh. And it’s more than understandable that you wouldn’t want to be classed as one of those writers.
I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t be doing, though – actively avoiding your own self as a source of writing inspiration or even as a character.
Let’s talk about human nature for a second. We like the familiar. We like the comfort that comes with things and ideas we know well. When we start out with writing we tend to feature familiar things in our work, be it a place we lived in or a subject we studied in college. And whom would you know better than your own self? (Of course, you could go all existential and say that none of us really knows our own selves, but for now let’s put that aside and assume that we know ourselves reasonably well, certainly better than we know our next-door neighbour or the barista who made our flat white today.) It’s instinctive, really, to introduce our realities into our first fiction. And there’s no need to ignore those instincts unless we have solid reasons to not wish to disclose aspects of our reality.
Moreover, writing about yourself is cathartic. There’s most likely a journey that brought you to the point where you decided you would be a writer. There were moments of indecision, perhaps discouragement or even mockery from your family and peers. There were books that inspired you, maybe movies you watched or conversations you had. Chronicling that journey can help you understand your own motivations better and act as a record you can refer to whenever you want. Of course, you could just write a diary entry about it, but fictionalising it gives it new depth and allows you to come to terms with yourself in a new way. And in the process, perhaps, you could discover answers to questions you’ve had about yourself but never really thought about in a concrete way.
I did the same thing. In my first novel, the main character (unlike me) is a man. His parents (unlike mine) are divorced. His ethnicity (unlike mine) is half-British, half-Punjabi. His experiences with reading and writing, however, have strong parallels with mine. His hunger for recognition, for escape from the path chosen for him by external forces is the same as mine. Both of us went to B-school, both of us have a strong fondness for American literature, both of us have made unfortunate mistakes in love but are capable of loving deeply and sincerely. The novel itself is a work-in-progress still, but giving it one and a half years of my life taught me so much about what I wanted and needed. In fact, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that writing that novel made me a more rounded person – and showed me beyond any doubt that fiction is where I am meant to be.
If you’re concerned that your protagonist is too much like you, or if you can’t seem to be able to work with characters who aren’t like you, try branching out bit by bit. Maybe write about someone who’s largely like you but differs from you in one very significant way. Or about someone with the same interests as you but a different culture. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try is to write about someone who’s completely different from you – different gender, different ethnicity, different history and characteristics, different loves. Flip everything about yourself around and see what you get – and create an interesting plot for that person while you’re at it.
I personally believe, though, that it’s absolutely fine to have the protagonist of your first novel be a lot like you. In fact, I’d even recommend it. All of us have at least one bildungsroman within us and there’s no shame in giving it the space it deserves. It might not necessarily be your best work, but it’ll be an important piece of writing all the same. And don’t be too worried about sounding egotistical or whatnot – this is your space, and your story that’s being told. Once you have this story down, you’ll be able to tackle other stories about other people with a freer mind. And – if you’re very lucky – you might just have the seeds of a new ‘Catcher In The Rye’ in your hands.