Writing About Yourself in Fiction: Right or Wrong?

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s outstanding 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. Some reviewers speculated the novel was autobiographical, as it focused on Eugenides’s hometown of Detroit and his Greek heritage, but it was not. ”I wanted to write about hermaphroditism,” Eugenides said in an interview with The New York Times. ”But hermaphroditism led to classicism, classicism led to Hellenism, Hellenism to my Uncle Pete. I didn’t set out to write a Greek-American novel. I used the history because it served my story.”

Eugenides is not alone. Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, featured parallels with his life growing up in Chicago. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle are other examples, though they are closer to memoir. Ernest Hemingway’s fiction often alluded to his life experiences.

Writers often draw on their own life experiences in their stories. There is a temptation among novice writers to base their first novel entirely on their own lives. There’s nothing wrong with using your own experiences as a springboard or gleaning traits from real-life characters to breathe life into your fictional characters.

Personally, I feel uncomfortable writing about my own life. First, it’s just not that interesting. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a wonderful life (channeling George Bailey), rich in meaningful experiences, friendships, and joys. My life is fine. It’s just not the stuff of fiction. Second, I believe it’s an invasion of my family and friends’ privacy to use them in a work of fiction.

Clearly, though, writers create their fictional worlds through the prism of their experiences. Write what you know. We’ve all heard that one before. The truth is we all know a lot more than we think we do. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be in a high-speed chase, but I’ve been a passenger in a car going too fast for comfort. I don’t know what it’s like to undergo brain surgery, but I do know what it’s like to go under the knife.

My first novel, Small Change, was not based in any way on my life. None of the things that happened to the main character, John Sykowski, ever happened to me. However, reflecting on the book, I realized the main character embodied many of my adolescent hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. No, John was not me. I was probably a mix of John and his carefree younger brother, Paul. At some level, writers infuse their characters with their own world view and perspective.

Writing a fictional story based on your life doesn’t strike me as a good idea, unless you are willing to change the facts to protect your family and friends. Here are a few tips for how you can draw on your rich life’s experiences in fiction:

  • Take the most interesting person you know (okay, not the Dos Equis guy) and redraw him in a way that is unrecognizable. If the person is a woman, write a male character with the same traits. If the person is a doctor, make him a lawyer. You get the idea.
  • Rewrite a dramatic event in your life by having it happen in a different way. Let’s say you were robbed at gunpoint and feared for your life. How about changing it up so your character is beaten senseless. If you were in a car accident, turn it into a boating accident.
  • If you were mistreated or had your heart broken in a relationship, change the gender of the abuser and alter the facts and events.

You get the picture. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all drink from the wellspring of our own experiences for inspiration and story ideas. That’s fine, as long you don’t compose a note-for-note duplication of your life. After all, as my character said in Small Change, a cover version of a song is never as good as the original.

How much of your own experiences do you use in your fiction writing?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Writing About Yourself in Fiction: Right or Wrong?

  1. I’ve deliberately used interesting or strongly emotional incidents from life in my writing, but only ever as a starting point… the story, whether it is a song, poem, or novel, needs to weave something new from that thread, or I’ll remove it entirely. I’m interested in using just enough of my inner mess to have the characters talk truthfully, act from their own flawed humanity, and live ithrough some honest moments.

    • Mary,
      Thanks for your comment. Your approach is a sound one. Whether consciously or subconsciously writers draw upon significant events in their lives. Thanks again.

      Chris

  2. Interesting topic and something I’ve often thought about. A lot of my short stories have pieces of my experiences in them, I usually mix and change it up but there is one story based on my friends experience which I slightly exaggerated but I just can’t seem to be able to write in any other way than the way it’s written which drives me nuts… It probably won’t see the light of day but it’s a shame as I’ve grown really attached to it. Tricky situation.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes it is a tricky situation. I try to avoid writing about specific events in my life, but we all draw from our personal experiences, whether consciously or subconsciously, in our writing. Changing key details is a good way to mask the fact that you are writing about a personal experience, or that of a friend or relative. Good luck.

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