In Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, biographer V.S. Pritchett writes that his subject was careful to “unself” himself in his stories. Pritchett quotes Chekhov directly as telling publisher Aleksey Suvorin that a writer “must speak and think in [the characters’] tone and must feel as a fellow-spirit, otherwise the image will become blurred.”
When I first started teaching college in the mid-seventies I noticed that nearly all of my poetry and fiction students were using the same autobiographical “I” (or “me”) they used to write their diaries, journals, and letters. These narrators were stand-ins for themselves and allowed them little or no distance from their characters.
Once they understood that writers like Salinger, Philip, Roth, and Chekhov used invented narrators – with attitudes and dilemmas different from their own – there was a remarkable improvement in their work. Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn, and Hemingway’s Jake Barnes gave their authors a remove in which they could ‘see’ their characters as actors in their stories.