At some point along your fiction journey, you may have considered writing autobiographical fiction—perhaps writing an autobiographical novel, or a shorter work based on your life experience. Many famous authors have turned their life stories into compelling works of prose, from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Most writers have life stories that can be turned into fiction, but what is the purpose of autobiographical fiction? Even more, what is autobiographical fiction?
Creative writers love to break conventions and bend genres, and autobiographical fiction (ABF) is a great hybrid of creative nonfiction and fiction. Still, ABF has certain conventions you need to know about if you want to conquer the genre. ABF stories are most often written as novel-length projects, so let’s explore how to write an autobiographical novel and grab hold of this slippery genre.
What is Autobiographical Fiction?
To offer a simple definition, autobiographical fiction is any work of fiction that is based on the real life events of the author. Autobiographical fiction is based on fact—but, importantly, not bound by fact.
Autobiographical fiction is based on fact—but, importantly, not bound by fact.
However, it’s hard to define ABF precisely, because ABF describes more of a spectrum than a genre. An ABF writer may choose to write about their life and simply change some names, embellish some descriptions, and alter the location. Or, writers of autobiographical fiction novels might loosely base their story on real life events, but they will change the plot, add additional characters, and explore “what if?” questions.
It’s better to define this tricky genre on a spectrum—including some autobiographical fiction examples. From most to least fictional, consider ABF on the following continuum. And no matter where your interests lie on this continuum, if you want more information on writing autobiographical short stories, novels, or anything in between, check out our course on writing autobiographical fiction with Jack Smith!
The Autobiographical Fiction Continuum
Below are some possibilities within autobiographical fiction, arranged from most fictional to most accurate to real events.
1. The Author Surrogate
Some writers choose to insert self-inspired characters into a mostly-fictional story. An author surrogate is when an author writes a character into their story for the sole purpose of having that character espouse the author’s beliefs. This character does not have to be major to the story, but they do play an important role in advancing the story’s themes and arguments.
A great example of the author surrogate is Nick Carroway, the first person narrator of The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Carroway to comment on the story’s themes of greed and relationships. Though Carroway is distinct from Fitzgerald, the writer is certainly present in the story’s events and interpretations.
Of course, you can also have fun with it. Stan Lee has a cameo in most of the Marvel movies, and why shouldn’t he?
2. The Self-Insert
The self-insert is often confused with the author surrogate, since both literary techniques rely on the author embodying themselves as a character in the book. However, the self-insert is a bit more obvious than the author surrogate.
A famous example of this is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. At several points in King’s heptalogy, a character named “King” talks about himself in relation to the greater narrative and is imbued with many of the author’s own traits, from his physical descriptions to the way he talks. In a story as genre-bent and metaphysical as The Dark Tower, it makes perfect sense for the author to write himself in the story.
3. Semi-Autobiographical Fiction
Semi-Autobiographical Fiction (SAF), also known as roman à clef , is any work of fiction wherein the central elements of both the narrator and the plot are based on the author themselves. The “semi” exists in the definition because the author may explore fictional hypotheticals, introduce fictional characters, or else digress from what happened in real life.
Many literary experts consider Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to be an example of a semi-autobiographical novel. Much of the plot, as well as many of the characters, resemble Plath’s own life and struggle with mental illness. Plath may have chosen to write this story as SAF because, sometimes, it is easier to tell one’s own story when it has the façade of fiction.
4. Fully Autobiographical Fiction
At the far end of the spectrum is completely autobiographical fiction. In this form of fiction, the author pulls directly from their life experiences and makes only aesthetic changes. Names, dates, and locations will be muddled, but the plot fully mirrors that of the author’s own life.
It’s hard to draw a line between SAF and ABF. Since readers don’t know the precise details of the author’s life, one can never be quite sure whether certain events of the story are fictional. For example, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins accurately examines the dissolution of the French Communist Party, but does she ever embellish her relationship to Jean-Paul Sartre? And Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is about the author’s experiences at Harvard, but how much of the novel is fact, and how much is distorted by memory?
When the past feels like fiction, why not write it as such?
When the past feels like fiction, why not write it as such? What’s important is that the genre is flexible and allows for a conversation between fictional and nonfictional elements. Some literary theorists abide by “Death of the Author,” in which the author’s opinions are unimportant to the work’s interpretation. If any genre directly challenges this assertion, it’s autobiographical fiction.
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Why Write Autobiographical Fiction?
Alongside this discussion of the ABF spectrum, you might be wondering what the purpose of autobiographical fiction is. Why not just write a memoir or personal essay?
Every writer’s intentions for writing autobiographical fiction are different. We can’t say for certain why anyone chooses to write in ABF, but there are a few major reasons why authors generally write autobiographical fiction novels.
To Tell Better Stories
For many novelists, the purpose of autobiographical fiction is to create a more satisfying story that is based in the strangeness of truth. The form allows us to consider what an autobiographical piece needs to feel more “complete,” or to bring across its core truths, and then write accordingly.
Autobiographical fiction can create a more satisfying story that is based in the strangeness of truth.
ABF also allows you to explore using your life as a starting point: write alternate endings, explore “what if?” questions, and pursue a different ending. You already know how your story is told, but will you tell it differently after changing X, Y, and Z?
To Create a Bit of Distance
ABF may also allow us to explore difficult moments in our lives through a protective lens, such as Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar. When nonfiction is too bright, autobiographical fiction can help shade us from our own harsh realities by creating a degree of separation between ourselves and our personal histories. Ironically enough, fiction gives us opportunities to be more objective about our lives.
Autobiographical fiction can also be useful for some writers who want to write with a sense of anonymity. They may be protecting certain names and identities in their stories, and the ABF form allows them to mask otherwise personal details
Finally, you might write ABF simply to have fun with it. Writing isn’t always a serious business, so why not insert your life story into the plot of Macbeth? What’s stopping you from injecting yourself into your own fictional world? The ABF genre is just as much of a literary technique as it is an opportunity to enjoy the fiction writing process, your way.
Autobiographical fiction is an opportunity to enjoy the fiction writing process, your way.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Some Starting Places
Whether you’re writing an author surrogate or pulling stories directly from your own life, writing autobiographical fiction requires some innovation. Creative genres require creative thinking, so while the following four methods are tried-and-true ways to write autobiographical fiction novels, they aren’t the only ones.
ABF commonly presents itself in the novel form. If you’re interested in writing an autobiographical novel, below are a few possible jumping-off points.
1. Begin with a Noun
If you are an ABF writer who wants their novel only loosely based in truth, start with a noun. Specifically, start with a person, place, thing, or idea that is true, but leave the rest of the story up to fiction.
For example, let’s say there was a time in your life where you were a chocolate taster, like Roald Dahl. You might decide to start your story with a chocolate factory, but then form characters and events around the themes of inequality.
Of course, Willy Wonka is purely fiction, and probably not a self-insert for Roald Dahl. You will still need to base some aspect of the story off of your own life to make it ABF, but starting with a noun can help base a fictional story on an inkling of truth.
2. Edit a Nonfiction Piece
You might decide that real-life events provide enough content for your story. If that’s the case, start by writing a memoir or autobiography, then edit after the first couple of drafts.
You have several options for editing your memoir into ABF, though you may already have a sense of direction after writing the first draft. To make it a true-to-life account, you can simply edit the nouns—change names, locations, dates, and objects so that the story remains anonymous.
Or, if “what if?” questions arise that you don’t want to leave open ended, you can write fictional scenes and change the ending.
3. Start with What You Don’t Know
The autobiographical novel helps us explore the incompleteness of our own memories. To remember is to distort, and many of us have personal histories that are hard to disentangle, dissect, and distinguish.
ABF allows us to explore what we don’t understand from our memories and create a story that makes sense. Many memoirists find that the act of writing nonfiction is cathartic, but when real life feels strange, writers can find catharsis in autobiographical fiction instead.
Write a novel that explores what you don’t know. Keep writing autobiographical fiction until you’re satisfied with the answer, or comfortable with the ambiguity.
4. Start with Two Disconnected Ideas
Sometimes, the fun of writing fiction comes when the author is able to connect two seemingly unconnected ideas. A great example of this is the story “Especially Heinous” by Carmen Maria Machado, which connects ghosts and magical realism to a New York murder mystery.
Why not connect random events from your own life? Psychologists call this “apophenia,” a state of mind in which we connect two things which actually have no relationship to each other. Taking an “apophenic” approach will help base your novel in truth but create a wholly different narrative, resulting in a novel that’s fun, engaging, and exploratory.
For example, you might try to connect an event that happened at your sixth birthday party to an event that happened on your lunch break last week. Or, you might try to construct a narrative based on a christmas present you received every year. Apophenia allows us to find magic and mystery in the details of our lives, and who’s to say the connections you develop aren’t true?
How to Write Autobiographical Fiction: Write with Friends!
Autobiographical fiction is a challenging form to master, since your story is attempting a relationship between fiction and nonfiction. If you’re stuck on a draft or need an extra set of eyes, joining a writing community will help you conquer the genre.