The Mark Blog

Alter-Ego Alternatives

The first decision a writer has to make is “who exactly is telling this story?” And, in many ways, the entire book becomes about answering this question. Since the traditional narrator, 3rd person omniscient, has largely fallen out of favor in modern literature, close-third or first-person narration has become the new standard, meaning we’re seeing the story through the eyes of our main character. Which also means the person telling the story is the story that the story is about. Get it?

Not only that, but also many authors employ an alter-ego narrator, meaning they’re writing versions of themselves, making a conscious effort to mirror their own lives, to explore real events or people through the filter of fiction.

In my alter-ego explorations, I’ve discovered one of the pitfalls tends to be my tendency to obscure the very things that I should be illuminating, hiding from a deeper truth that I have a hard time facing about myself. Such are the hazards of navel-gazing, I suppose, but it’s a well-worn path many writers I admire have taken and, now that I’ve started, I’m not sure I can go back.

Some writers will purposely alter their alter-egos, creating a parallel life, at least on paper. Willa Cather in My Antonia uses a male alter-ego, perhaps as a way to connect closer to the truth of her life as a lesbian at a time when to write honestly about it would have been too controversial. John Updike’s Rabbit shares a lot of Updike’s personal history, but becomes a used car salesman, an exploration of “What would happen if…?”

Another method is to employ an alter-ego as a secondary character, such as Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, who appears in several books and whose biography changes throughout each one.

And then there are alter-egos that sit so closely to the writer, it’s hard to identify them outside of it, such as Bukowski’s Chinaski or Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, whose descent into madness closely mirrors Plath’s own.

A big decision writers have to make about their alter-egos from the get-go is whether or not to make them writers. On the one hand, it feels more truthful, like, all right, this narrator isn’t bullshitting us, he’s admitting to being a writer, which, duh, he must be, since we’re reading his book. On the other, it’s become a cliché, and how interesting is it to read about someone who spends most of their time writing?

Some get around this by portraying the alter-ego in their formative phase, showing what inspired them to become writers. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is one famous example of this, as well as Sal Paradise in On The Road. Another tactic is to employ a writer alter-ego who’s a lot less successful and prolific than the writer himself, like Updike’s other alter-ego Henry Bech.

In the end, it comes back to story and which method returns the greatest result. An author’s alter-ego can still tell a story that has little to do with writing, leaving their writer-selves as more of a background element. In Junot Diaz’s recent collection, the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is, as it states, mostly about love and the effects of a breakup. In the end, a friend suggests the narrator should write “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and it becomes clear that, well, yes, he has, and we just read it.

I’m not sure the story needed that self-reference, but it is about the only redemption the character gets. He’s fucked up his whole life, and it’s still a bit of a mess in the end, but at least he got a book out of it…