Autobiographical Fiction: Using Your Real Life To Craft Great Fiction
There is a fine line between a fictionalized autobiography or memoir and autobiographical fiction. In both cases, the author includes tidbits about his or her life. The difference is to what extent. Fictionalized autobiographies are mostly a truthful telling of the author’s experience with sections fictionalized to “protect the innocent”, filling gaps where memory fails, and occasionally rearranging events for maximum narrative effect. Generally speaking, the reader is to believe the author’s account and take it for truth.
On the other hand, autobiographical fiction is primarily comprised of made up events and characters that may be based on the author’s own experience and self. The protagonist might be modeled after the author and do at least some of the things the author has actually done in his or her life. However, the ratio of truth to fiction will be somewhat small.
Of course, there are a plethora of variations—writers (as you know) don’t like to be held to a genre. And some of the best books out there are nearly impossible to categorize as being either memoir or fiction. Unless the writer is like Dave Eggers, who obsessively detailed all the possible fictionalizations that appear in his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, we as readers are not likely to know what percentage of a memoir has been fictionalized nor how much of a writer’s own life appears in a book labeled as fiction.
In this article, though, I will focus on autobiographical fiction, or works that are primarily made up and billed to the reader as such, but which contain characters and events from the author’s real life. Keeping in mind that the goal is to write fiction, I have a few ideas on how to make it work.
Don’t focus on the facts
It can easily be argued that all fiction is autobiographical in some way because it undoubtedly contains elements of the author’s actual experience. A writer who pens a story about a school can be assumed to have either attended school or know people that have. The school does not need to be the writer’s school nor resemble it in any real way; the concept of “school” exists in the writer’s memory and is therefore based on some type of real experience. Place often appears in autobiographical stories. It’s well known that Stephen King based The Shining on a real hotel in Colorado, and that most of his stories take place in Maine because, well, he’s from there. The stories he writes are not about him. He is not a possessed father stalking his family in a remote mountain resort, but his experience of having actually stayed in the Stanley Hotel informed his fiction. Mr. King is actually a pretty nice guy with a vivid imagination, a writer who can transform a real memory into an entirely new world inside the pages of his novels.
Let’s use King’s book Under the Dome as an example. In the book, King creates a detailed and credible environment—a small town in Maine—that is inexplicably covered by an impenetrable dome one day. While the situation of being stuck under a dome is outrageous, and certainly not autobiographical, the world of the small town and its citizens is entirely realistic, a genuine portrait of a typical small Northeastern village. King is able to write authentically about such a town because of his own experience as a Maine resident. Without a doubt, his real experiences informed his fictional town.
In this way, King used the best of his personal experience combined with real fictional prowess. If people or places in the book were based on actual people and places, their similarity would be effectively obscured by the overall plot.
Cut the crap
When converting truth to fiction, it's best to cull only the essential and leave all the rest. Fiction writers have complete license to keep only the best tidbits of the story. Even memoirs can benefit from a little cutting. Keeping only the juiciest bits and tossing the less-than-interesting parts into the compost is a smart way to use a piece of truth to its full fictional advantage.
Let’s use a real story from my own life as an example to work from:
The summer after I graduated high school, my best friend and I decided to spend our day off down at the river that ran through our small Colorado town. A few hours into our excursion, us happily wading in the cool water and sunning ourselves, a man appeared on the opposite side of the river, roughly 150 feet away from us. I watched as he descended the bank. I looked away, undisturbed as it’s a popular spot. When I looked back up, he was ankle deep in the water, and totally naked. He waved to us.
Sensing it was time to go, my friend and I quickly packed our stuff and all but ran back to her car along the tiny path that went from the sandy area of riverbank where we had been hanging out to the road. The path, narrow and steep in places, was up the bank from the river, and a layer of trees obscured the river’s edge. About halfway back to the car, we heard a voice address us from the trees.
“You don’t have to leave on my account.” We both looked down in horror to see the naked man had somehow crossed the river and was now standing within feet of us. How he’d arrived there so quickly, we’ll never know. The river was wide at that section and, in order to have appeared ahead of us in the trees as we tried to escape, the naked man would have had to wade upstream across the rushing, 2-3 foot deep water, walking on slippery rocks the entire way as the river was not deep enough to swim in.
Surprised, we mumbled something about having to go and bolted down the path toward her car. When we got there, we checked under the car, in the backseat and then locked ourselves in. When I looked back at the river as we peeled out, he was nowhere to be seen.
Now there are many elements to this story, and most of them aren’t interesting in the bigger picture. For one, who cares who it was, where or when it was. The juiciest morsel of this story, and the only thing I would preserve should I someday work it into a piece of fiction, is the fact of the naked man miraculously fording a white-water river to freak-out a couple of girls. I might keep his quote for the sheer absurdity of it, but not necessarily. The rest of the details I’d leave out or change completely to fit better in the fictionalized world that I am creating.
Change the ending
Unlike memoir, which can be forgiven for presenting events in a less-than narratively perfect way, any real life details in autobiographical fiction must neatly line up with other plot elements in the story. Say, for instance, you are the real life Hamlet, and not only did you live, but a few other people in your story did also. Some of those flesh wounds from the final scene turned out to be not-so-bad, and a few people went on to lead relatively normal lives when it was all said and done. Well that’s great for you, but it doesn’t make for such good storytelling. The only ending that makes sense in Hamlet, the one that will leave the most impact is for the hero and the villains to die in order for the final resolution to be possible.
Same is true for any fictional adaptation of an autobiographical story. David Copperfield is a not-so-thinly veiled autobiography of Charles Dickens’ life, with whole sections, such as David/Charles’ work in a blacking factory as a young boy, pulled directly from Dickens' life. But, entire chapters are pure fiction, as it should be. For one, Charles was not an orphan, though he spent some time almost on his own while his father served time in debtor’s prison. Like David, Charles married a woman he turned out to be not-so-fond of after all, but she didn’t die childless as David's Dora did. Rather, she bore him many children before their marriage fizzled and he ran off with an actress (long after David Copperfield was published.) Ultimately, David Copperfield can only be considered a versioning of Dickens’ real, self adjusted enough to create good, rich fiction. Of course, Dickens’ wrote the end of David’s story long before his own story ended, so he could not end David's life as his eventually ended. Instead, he gave David the ending that best fit the life Dickens wrote for him on the page. While there may have been similarities, ultimately Dickens knew it was the story that must prevail and so wrote accordingly. He's known as a master of fiction, and David Copperfield is one of those fictional masterpieces in which he used the best from his real life and made up the rest.
Now You Try
As I did in article above, select a story from your own life. It can be a silly story like mine, something laughed at over at parties, or it can be more serious or life-altering. Distil it down to the most essential element. What exactly makes the story compelling. Then try to write a new story that uses that little tidbit of truth, but is otherwise fictional. Please share in the comments below or email me directly: email@example.com.
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