Painting a Self Portrait - Joy Margetts


Pablo Picasso Self Portrait 1965

It’s an absolute privilege to be invited to write a guest blog for Authors Electric. As a newly published author I find myself among very distinguished writer company here, and ever so slightly intimidated!

My first novel was published in March of this year. It is historic fiction, set in medieval Wales in the time of Llewellyn the Great, but it is also a faith based story, set against the backdrop of Cistercian abbey life. I knew from the start that I was writing a book based on my own life experiences, but of course fictionalised to another time and place. Inevitably, my main protagonist bore more than a passing resemblance to myself - although he is a thirty -something world weary knight, and I am a fifty -something semi -retired grandmother.

I did not set out to paint a self- portrait in my characterisation. That is referred to as ‘author surrogacy’ I believe, and a device used by manyan illustrious writer to tell their own story in the guise of fiction. Apparently even ‘David Copperfield’ shared a remarkably similar life story to Dickens himself. But it is also apparent that not just my main protagonist, but actually many of the characters in the book - look, sound, think or speak like me. So my question is, how much is writing fiction, and particularly creating fictional characters, actually us just painting a self portrait? A slightly obscure one perhaps, but onedefinitely depicting ourselves.

I’ll illustrate this further. My main character, the knight, shares many of my thoughts and feelings, and starts the book in a place of despair, that is similar to where I once was. The other main character, a Cistercian monk, speaks more like me, has my sense of humour, and shares words of wisdom that I have learnt in my faith journey. Neither look anything like me. The female protagonist on the other hand looks much like I did in my ‘heyday’, or perhaps an idealised version of what I looked like, but is much gentler and wiser than I was then. A plethora of other characters are based on people I know, or who are important in my life. Even the names I gave them were names from my family history, or in remembrance of dear long- lost loved ones. Of course all of them spokemy words, I wrote their stories after all. Most alarmingly a horse appears in the book, with a character all of his own, and even he shares character traits with me… perhaps I shouldn’t tell you which ones!

Now it might be that it is because I am a new fiction writer that I ended up drawing so much on the things that I knew in order to paint my characters. But I wonder if this will always be the case as I write more stories? Will I just be continuing to add dibs and dabs of paint to that surreal self portrait? I would love to know what you think? I guess if you write murder mysteries, crime fiction, horror, or erotic romance, you might not be so willing to concede that all of your characters bear some resemblance to yourself. As a fun thing to do (hopefully fun and not terrifyingly revealing), how about taking one of your stories and thinking about your characters, and see how many of them bear at least one trait that you recognise as coming from you?

It is useful to think about why artists paint self-portraits. Apparently the art form first developed with the wide availability of mirrors, and artists suddenly found, in themselves, free, always accessible models for their own art. Self- portraits enabled them to practice and hone their skills,and experiment with new techniques. Sometimes they were used as a means to advertise their ability, and even at times, to record their own inner turmoil and desires – like a journal in picture form. For me there are definitely some parallels here in writing fiction. Writing is an ever evolving skill, and perhaps using yourself as inspiration enables you to practice and develop your writing, until you are confident enough to write less about yourself and more about other things that inspire you. Certainly fiction can reveal much about the author to their readers, advertise their creative skills, but also give a insight into their own character and inner beliefs. So is using yourself as inspiration the easy way out? We would not denigrate any of the grand masters for painting themselves. These works have great value – not just as great works of art, but as priceless insights into the psyche of the painter themselves. So no, I don’t believe so.

Vincent Van Gogh Self Portrait 1889

Perhaps as my writing matures I’ll be able to leave myself out of it more. Do my research, create interestingly different personas for the people that come forth from my imagination. I’d love to think I will even be able to construct characters that are diametrically opposite to me in every way – but then, I wonder, is that not just another version of self-portrait painting, but in reverse relief? 

So now I must return to writing about more monks, and more horses, funnily enough. Now, ‘what was it that I was going to say about that old, fat, grey horse?’ she says - catching a glance of herself in the mirror…

About the Author

Joy Margetts has loved writing for as long as she can remember. A retired nurse and mother of two, she also has a lifelong interest in history, and loves nothing better than visiting ancient monuments or burying herself in archive material. She was brought up in Southern England but for the last twenty five years has made her home on the beautiful North Wales coast.

Her debut novel 'The Healing', a work of historic fiction, was published by Instant Apostle on 19 March 2021. Joy has also self published a short novella, 'The Beloved' as both a companion to 'The Healing', and as an easy to read standalone story, which is available on Amazon Kindle.

More information on Joy and her writing, and her personal blog, can be found here


Griselda Heppel said…
Welcome to Authors Electric, Joy, and what a terrific post!

Yes, where do our characters come from if not from ourselves and people we've come across? I'm on the same road as you in that the main characters of my 3 children's books have something of me in them. I don't see how you can avoid that completely, at least to begin with. I was greatly reassured about this by Caroline Lawrence, author of the wonderful Roman Mysteries, when she described her main character, Flavia, as a cross between herself and Nancy Drew. I think that's the secret ie to add other elements into the mix to create a new character. This can be liberating too - Eleanor, 11 year-old heroine of my about to be published book, The Fall of a Sparrow, is much braver than I am, taking on challenges that I would definitely shirk. On the other hand, like me, she is terrible at riding!

I'd never thought of the parallel with self-portraits and that is so interesting. Sometimes a self-portrait can be the best thing in an artist's work, revealing a deep analysis of all his/her insecurities, fears, hopes and strengths. Samuel Palmer's, for instance, is extraordinary.
Joy Margetts said…
Thank you so much for your lovely response to my post. I love the idea of our writing being a means by which we can examine our own insecurities, fears and hopes. And present them to the world, perhaps without the reader realising!

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