Monday Writing Motivation: The writer’s divided self

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

I’ve been listening to a long and fascinating book by Naomi Klein called Doppelganger – about the confusion caused when thousands of people mistook her for another writer, also a Naomi – Naomi Wolf.

Naomi Klein is most closely associated with her third book, The Shock Doctrine, which argued that unscrupulous political actors take advantage of major social, economic and political shocks to implement policies that go far beyond what the circumstances legimiately call for.

She was driven to write her latest book because her particular doppelganger, Ms Wolf, has over the years drifted into the conspiracy-strewn seas of the far right and Ms Klein has been mistaken frequently for Ms Wolf thanks to a general physical similarity, but also due to the fact that they have taken aim at the same general targets in their polemics.

It’s been an uncomfortable, indeed a horrendous experience for Naomi Klein. To rid herself of the association, she has written a book that considers not only her own particular case, but also the phenomenon of the doppelganger: a look-alike who embodies your worst traits, or who steals your identity, or who in some other way destroys your easy assumptions about who you are.

In our courses we sometimes suggest writers use themselves as models for their protagonists. A character in a story is a construct, not a human being, and before long your human identity will have been subsumed by the identity of the character. The story will take him on paths you’ve never trod, and he will respond in his own distinctive way.

And yet it seems to me that however much your destinies will differ, however great the divergence between your story and the story of your character, there will always be some kernel at his core that resonates with yours. Your identities will, in some sense, be intertwined. He will be, if you like, a possibility of you.

Which is to say that the doppelganger phenomenon is central to any story for which you have taken a rib from your chest and shaped a character around it.

You will, for instance, have exported from the dark reaches of an imagined self an aptitude for violence, or cruelty or mockery. Or you might have gone the other way and used the better angels of your nature as the scaffolding for your protagonist, an idealised version of yourself, a person who, in the real world, would be admired for his generosity and his kindness, his acumen and his creativity.

In fact, it’s entirely likely that you’ve done both things in a story, wrapped your protagonist around virtue, and the antagonist around vice – these attributes being drawn from your own experience of yourself.

It’s easy to see that this capacity – to extract from our divided self the attributes of both heroes and villains – taken to an extreme becomes a pathology, what used to be called multiple-personality disorder.

But in a writer, it’s called imagination. It’s our super-power. It’s the fuel that powers every story we’ve ever written.

Happy writing,


P.S. I’d love to hear what you think. Let me know your thoughts by commenting below.

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