If there’s great big red flag in fiction, it’s making your main character a writer. Making him not just a writer but a novelist is a flag so big and red it’s practically a hot air balloon rising off the page. Why? Because as the old adage goes, writers write what they know, and if they’re writing about being a writer, they obviously know very, very little.
But not always. Talent, vision, and purpose can make anything work in a brilliant novel, even decisions about character and voice that would be questionable in lesser works. Here are five novels featuring a writer as the main character that cleverly avoid the usual pitfalls (chief among them, making that character a Mary Sue).
Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon
Grady Tripp is a wonderfully messy character, an author struggling to finish his second novel amid some incredibly (and steadily worsening) chaos in his personal life. As he frets over his novel, his wife’s departure, his mistress’s pregnancy, and the strange student who embroils him in a bizarre caper, Grady can’t seem to see just how much of the chaos he’s responsible for.
Why It Works: Grady is a writer, yes, but the story is about not being able to finish (or even control) a writing project. His haplessness is winning.
The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler
It’s a wonderful conceit: Macon Leary is a travel writer who doesn’t want to go anywhere or try anything new. And the story isn’t so much about his writing, but rather about relationships. While the metaphor of Travel Writer Who Fears the Unknown Meets Eccentric Woman Who Challenges Him is a bit obvious (though used well here), this is a story that lives in the wonderful character details Tyler creates, for Macon and the free-spirited woman who entices him, as well as Macon’s odd siblings.
Why It Works: Because the improbably named Macon barely even thinks about his profession.
Misery & The Shining, by Stephen King
Stephen King has a tendency to make his characters writers of one stripe or another. He tends to get away with it because he has always maintained a grasp of the non-writer’s life as well, peppering his works with well-described characters and points of view that have nothing to do with novelists. But in Misery and The Shining he manages what few can: he weaves the profession into the plot itself, making it essential that his protagonists be writers.
Why It Works: The aforementioned essentialness, but also because he mocks the creative process: Paul Sheldon writes his best work during his ordeal with an insane superfan, and Jack Torrance’s entire output at the (possibly) haunted hotel is one infamous line, repeated endlessly.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote
People focus on the (admittedly amazing) character of Holly Golightly so much they forget she’s not the narrator: that’s actually the unnamed writer she dubs “Fred.” He narrates the novel’s events, slowly falling in love (despite being fairly obviously homosexual) with the hilarious, charming, beautiful, and tragic Holly, a girl who earns her living entertaining rich men—it’s not quite prostitution (depending on your reading), but close enough. What’s interesting is that Capote barely sketches the narrator as a writer. His profession is briefly mentioned, then forgotten.
Why It Works: Because you can’t take your eyes off of Golightly.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
Donaldson’s classic epic fantasy has a main character who is not only an author, but successful enough that he doesn’t need to do much more. But his profession is almost beside the point. What really defines Covenant is his leprosy (a disease pretty surprising to find in a modern book), and then, once he visits the supernatural (and possibly imaginary) Land where he is a strange messiah figure, his Wild Magic. Donaldson subtly forces you to wonder how much of Covenant’s experiences in the Land are in his mind, and whether he is in fact the Creator he meets at the story’s conclusion—the ultimate writer.
Why It Works: Because so much incredibly wild stuff happens so quickly, it’s easy to simply forget Covenant has any sort of real-world life.