Thoughts on Writing Fictionalized Autobiography

My working definition of “Fictionalized Autobiography”: Fictional stories heavily based off of your personal life experiences and starring a main character who represents and resembles you. Not meant to be 100% accurate compared to actual life events and is different from autobiography and creative nonfiction.

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I’ve frequently heard from writing professionals that you shouldn’t base characters off of yourself or write plots inspired by your own life, as it can be difficult to remove yourself from the situation. When it comes to our lives, we have difficulty seeing clearly, mostly because of emotion or sentimentality. In attempting to write a story based off of a certain event, there’s a tendency to stick to exactly what happened without any regard for proper storytelling principles, such as only keeping what’s necessary in the narrative. We might think we’ve kept only the “necessary” bits, blind to the fact that your one darling scene is merely a humorous blip that doesn’t fit in with the overarching plot and isn’t needed at all. It’s significant to us, yes. But to the rest of the world? No. Sorry. It’s just like those jokes or memories that are only funny to the ones present when it happened and to no one else. When you try and explain it to an outsider, their response of a polite smile tells you that your story isn’t actually as amusing as you think. And believe me, I’ve had a lot of experiences like this.

While I’m an expert in joke flops and the failed retelling of seemingly hysterical moments of my past, I’m by no means a writing expert. But I do think it’s possible to write stories based off of our personal experiences. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. It just takes a healthy helping of humble pie and a developed ability to step away from the sentiment tied to your life experiences. I’ve had to learn this the hard way myself, because I’m one of the rebels who attempted to write “fictionalized autobiography” based off of my own life.

I’ve written two books of “fictionalized autobiography,” and they’re honestly my favorite books I’ve written to date. The first is The Queen of Imagination, inspired by my childhood in Oklahoma, and the second is Our Company of Fools, a depiction of my experiences with my writers’ group, the One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) community. Maybe it’s sentiment that I haven’t purged yet, or maybe it’s because they feel the most real of all my stories. There’s a certain specialness to them that I believe has the power to truly touch others more than any other work of mine (and might have already done so, based on feedback I’ve received). Though not perfect, I love them and am committed to carrying them out to completion. The Queen of Imagination was several years of stop-and-start writing, and I’ve only finished a full first draft this month. For Our Company of Fools, I’m working on its sixth draft. With each draft (including this one), I’ve done a lot of cutting and rewrites based on removing nostalgia-driven scenes that aren’t necessary to the plot and added made-up moments that were needed in the narrative. I figure I’ll be doing the same revisions for The Queen of Imagination, although from the initial conception and outline stage that book is way less fact-based than Our Company of Fools is and ever was. If you’re curious to know more about the stories, check out the “Writing-in-Progress” page for their back cover synopses and current project status.

As I’ve written and revised these stories centered on main characters heavily based off of myself and taken the criticism of others into account, I’ve reflected quite a lot on how to write fictionalized autobiography well. I don’t think I’ve cracked the code yet, but there are a few important things I try to keep in mind when dealing with plots and characters influenced by my own experiences that I’d like to share.

To start, you must have humility and honesty about yourself and your struggles. People are broken. We have issues. We’re not perfect. If you’re writing an MC based off of yourself and neglect to add in your own personal baggage, vices, and difficulties, then it’s not going to feel real, to you or to your reader. After that, you must have the courage to share that darker side with others. It doesn’t matter if you list all the negative aspects of your character (or yourself) on a character development sheet if none of that shows up on the page. The negative needs to be present, and the story and its themes should flow from your main character’s struggles and vices (read: your struggles and vices, for fictionalized autobiography). Yes, it’s scary because it makes you vulnerable. But I promise you, you’re not alone in your struggles, and by sharing that broken part of your life, you’re going to make a difference in someone else’s life. You’re going to encourage them by showing them how you got to the other side of your trial. It doesn’t matter if the story is technically fiction—as long as you’re honest with this piece of the story, the narrative will ring true and authentic.

It’s easiest to do the above with retrospection since we tend to see things more clearly when we look back on our lives. In creating Melody Pine (the protagonist of The Queen of Imagination), I looked back as an older teenager and saw my younger self’s pride. My resistance of making friends despite being drawn to people. My desire to be in control of everything and everyone (or, in other words, I was a bossy child). This all accumulated into Melody’s central conflict, and her wrestle with these vices drives the plot of The Queen of Imagination forward.

In Our Company of Fools, finding Leah’s vices was a little more difficult, as I first wrote the book during I time when I still couldn’t clearly recognize my own need for growth during the summer between high school and college (which is when the story is set). Because I couldn’t see the root of my own college freshman struggles, I couldn’t accurately or strongly represent Leah’s thematic issue on the page. It was only a few weeks ago that I was finally able to hone in on Leah’s loneliness (a major part of her character that haunts her throughout the book) as being self-inflicted. Leah was alone, in part, because she’s quick to judge others and intentionally distances herself from those she thinks will judge her poorly in return. She’s also scared of being vulnerable with others. Both of these are issues I personally struggled with before college and during my freshman year, but I also discovered that my own personal vices only provided a launching point for my main character. Leah’s personal struggles do vary from my own to better fit the story. She’s outgrown the mold I cast for her.

Which is a great segue point to the next important element to remember in writing fictionalized autobiography: remember that you’re writing fiction, not a memoir, not creative nonfiction, not autobiography. If you want to write those things, great! But if you’re trying to write a novel based on your life, well, it’s important to keep in mind that the rules of fiction differ from the rules of life. Life is a complex mess and doesn’t always have a linear narrative. Fiction has a defined structure. Life features lots of random moments that don’t accumulate into a single, streamlined grand plot. Fiction focuses on scenes crucial in leading readers to a climactic and decisive end. Life’s ebbs and flows rarely tie up that neatly.

The idea of “killing your darlings” is incredibly relevant to this idea. We can’t let sentiment dictate the scenes or elements in our book that are, quite frankly, unnecessary and don’t serve the story. I learned this the hard way with Our Company of Fools. From the first draft, there were scenes inserted into the story based on my nostalgia and trying to perfectly honor what actually happened. However, in order to make the book both better and more accessible to a wider readership, I cut certain scenes, dialogue exchanges, and characters in order to allow for the plot to progress. It was a necessity. Things like inside jokes don’t belong in a novel meant for a large, diverse audience, and holding hard and fast to precise details about timing can interfere with having the proper pacing in a story.

Lastly, consider the purpose of writing fictionalized autobiography over straight autobiography. Why are you writing your story in this way? For me, The Queen of Imagination captures the spirit of childhood in a playful, almost satirical tone and allows me to convey the heart of what I learned as a kid: the inevitability to change. I could tell it from my point of view, but I think the way I’m writing it binds it together in a more cohesive narrative than simply relating my own childhood experiences would. As for Our Company of Fools, I wanted to use an allegory with a fantasy twist to highlight what I was learning at the time in my life: vulnerability, friendship, and life’s trials. So, I made it fiction to support the genre shift, among a few other things.

I’m not trying to protect identities or hide my own brokenness behind a character with either of these stories. I simply think the most effective way to make my experiences and struggles more accessible to others is through fictionalizing my life—even over creating a story from scratch that highlights the themes of these books. I just don’t think it would be as rich or real that way, and any plot I could come up with would always swerve back to what I know and lived.

So, there you have it. My thoughts and experiences with writing “fictionalized autobiography.” It’s a rewarding challenge to write stories in this way, I think, but it definitely takes a lot of honesty and bravery to pull off successfully.

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Have you ever written stories based off of your experiences or based characters off of yourself or those you know? What did you learn from writing that piece? Any additional tips or insights you picked up? I’d love to hear in the comments below!