Why You Shouldn’t Write Autobiographical Fiction

I’ve heard some things lately.  Things like “write what you know” and “first novels are always autobiographical.”  It makes sense.  Something must have happened in a writer’s life to make her sit down and try to knock out 300 pages.  Still, my novel is NOT based on me or anyone that I know.  I just don’t have time to deal with the drama of putting people (including myself) on blast.  Initially, I thought that this would make my task harder and perhaps my writing sound less authentic.  Now I think the opposite is true.  Here’s why:

There is a scenario that I have seen many times over the past year attending workshops with other writers.  It goes like this:  Writer submits story.  Group discusses.  Group agrees that one character is missing “something”—heart? Substance? Depth? Writer admits they struggled with character.  Turns out character is based on writer or someone close to writer.

I’ve also seen this scenario: Writer submits story.  Group discusses. Group is so-so about story.  Group agrees that one character in particular stands out among all the rest.  Writer admits that it’s based on a true story except for everyone’s favorite character, who was completely made up.

I’ve seen this over and over again.  And it continually surprised me until like the 5th time, when I tried to figure out what was going on.  I think when you write fiction based on someone you know or something that really happened, you try to make your story as close to real life as possible.  This seems like a good idea but it’s not because your emotions get in the way of the story.  For example, let’s say your story is based on one of your real life romances.  In real life, there was a magical moment when you were dancing and every time you hear the song that was playing it brings these feelings of love and happiness and euphoria.  That song is “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.  Beautiful song.  It can even sound romantic.  So then you’re writing your story and you want to have your couple fall in love to that song because it feels right and it really did happen, so it must be believable right?  No.  Horrible idea.  Why? Because she’s singing about lynching for goodness sakes!!  Your instincts have led you astray because you’re not thinking about the message of your fictional tale; rather, you’re trying to recreate history.

Alternatively, if the character is completely made up that means they exist for the sake of the story.  Therefore, every experience, encounter, random song in the background somehow connects with what’s going on.  And, personally, I think designing that novel and making those connections is part of the fun.  It frees you from being merely a historian.  And with that freedom comes creativity, authenticity and maybe even a comprehensive story.

One might ask, but what about these raw, real emotions from a real life experience that I’m trying to get out on the page?  I think you can still use those experiences to empathize with your characters, and you should.  But you don’t have to recreate the exact scenario that led to your emotions to write good fiction, in my opinion.  In fact, you probably shouldn’t.

To sum this post up in a nutshell I bring you a quote by Tom Clancy: “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  Ya dig?


8 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Write Autobiographical Fiction

  1. Isn’t there a middle ground? Can a character be part imagination, to best serve the story, and part inspiration — drawn from what a writer knows? You’ve got a point, though, about raw emotion. I’m guessing that autobiographical fiction or roman-a-clefs in their purest sense are most effectively written when the author’s got the benefit of hindsight and some real emotional distance. Btw, I’ve got stories you’d appreciate about meeting some local authors — we should grab a drink and talk books sometime soon!

    • Oh, definitely. I don’t think people will ever stop writing autobiographical fiction, which is why I felt like I had to be extreme in my opinion lol. I just noticed that people struggle with it a lot and am pointing out a possible reason as to why. I think you put it right–basically, people need to figure out how to maintain some emotional distance. Anyway, we def should get a drink!! 🙂

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  4. “Alternatively, if the character is completely made up that means they exist for the sake of the story.” This post, but especially this line, made me sigh with recognition. Now I know why I’m so stuck in the short story I’m writing. Thanks for the great advice!

    • I’m glad it was helpful! I think it’s OK to draw on your experiences, of course, but I think it’s a useful exercise to occassionally ask “why am I having my character do this? Because she would or because I (or my friend/family member) did in real life?

    • Sorry for the delayed response. I say go for it! This post is really just about something to consider when writing autobiographical fiction…of course there will be exceptions

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