January 8th, 2021

How Much of Our Real Life Shows Up in Our Fiction?

by Julie Glover

When my husband read the first draft of the first novel I ever wrote, he asked about my protagonist, “Is this you?”

That’s hardly the only time that question has come up. How much of our real lives and personalities go into the characters and world we writers create? Our readers, including friends and family, may suspect we’re largely putting autobiographical stuff on the page.

After all, aren’t we supposed to write what we know?

No, It’s Not Me

I can assure you that Annie Lewis—whose story has yet to be published, but someday will be—is not me. Nor are any of the other characters I’ve constructed in more than 20 novel and short story manuscripts.

And I’m not alone. Other authors say similar things:

Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade.

Philip Roth, Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 84 (theparisreview.org)

I write fiction because it is a beautiful place to hide.

Jami Attenberg, Stop Reading My Fiction as the Story of My Life - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Fudge is based on my son, Larry, when he was a toddler. A very interesting child.... But that wasn't a serious look at him.... Peter and Tootsie are from my imagination. At least, I think they are.

Judy Blume, Judy Blume Interview Transcript | Scholastic

Make-believe and imagination are what fuels most of our characters, plots, and stories. That’s why it’s called fiction.

But Real Life Inspires

What we read, hear, experience, and do often provides the inspiration from which stories grow.

For instance, the idea for my young adult novel, Sharing Hunter, came from me thinking about the success of TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives and my interactions with teenage girls (mostly through church youth groups). All that came together when I posed this question: What if two girls shared a guy in high school? And then I had to figure out how on earth to make that a believable scenario!

Not only that, one main character of that novel, Chloe Fox, began as a composite of three people I know in real life. Whenever I got stuck with What would Chloe do? I simply imagined what her real-life exemplars might do and went from there.

Cecily von Ziegesar, author of The Gossip Girl series, said it this way:

I use my experiences as a kind of foundation, and then I elaborate extensively on them. I'm always saying that my books are not autobiographical because they're not. I can't choose any one scene and say, "Oh, this is exactly what happened to me!" I just use little snippets of things as a starting point!

Interview With Gossip Girl Author Cecily von Ziegesar - Cum Laude By Cecily von Ziegesar (seventeen.com)

Letting real life inspire and inform us helps us write believable, compelling stories.

Real Life Gives Perspective

Take any well-known story—from the fairy tale Cinderella to the legend of Bloody Mary—ask ten different writers to write their version, and you'll get ten different stories. Because our personal biographies influence how we see the world, what aspects of any story attract us most, what real-life ideas inspire us, and how we craft the words.

In that sense, fiction is autobiographical, in that we can’t help but bring who we are to what and how we write. Even what we imagine is different depending on our backgrounds, personalities, and more.

I like the way author Alice Munro said it:

The stories are not autobiographical, but they’re personal in that way. I seem to know only the things that I’ve learned. Probably some things through observation, but what I feel I know surely is personal.

Go Ask Alice | The New Yorker

Surely, our best stories are personal. They represent who we are, what we value, and what we wish to share with others.

Mine Real Life for Story Gold

If an author wishes to write their own lives, autobiography and memoir sell well! Go for it.

For those of us writing fiction, we should know when and how to let real life creep into our stories. Here are four ways to mine your life for story gold.

  • Let real-life people inspire characters.

Just as Judy Blume and I did in our books—oh my goodness, did I just equate me and Ms. Blume in some way!—someone you know in real life can be the launching point for your characters. But as you continue to write and knead the story, the character will likely come into their own.

For many writers, our creation ends up feeling almost as real as the live person who inspired them, with their own unique ways.

  • Tap into your emotion.

Authors often hearken back to how they felt during a personal experience to write effectively. Maybe they didn’t lose a loved one in the exact way their character did, but they know what loss feels like and how grief takes its toll. Maybe they didn’t have the scathing breakup they describe in their novel, but they recall rejection and loneliness. Maybe they haven’t found The One yet, but they know what it is to desire and love.

Whatever the story situation, we write more compelling scenes when we let our true selves and emotion seep onto the page.

  • Know your passion.

What moves you? What themes do you long to get across? Your personal passions can help you determine genre and characters and story ideas.

Plenty of authors become known for the type of novel they write, which comes from their personal passion or philosophy of life.

A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images…. This secret fusion between experiences and ideas, between life and reflection on the meaning of life, is what makes the great novelist.

Albert Camus, Review of Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, in Alger Républicain (20 Oct 1938) | WIST

Even if you write in varied genres, you likely have themes that crop up again and again. For instance, every single work of fiction I’ve written has three takeaways:

  1. You are stronger than you think.
  2. Do the right thing, even when it’s hard.
  3. Embrace humor to get through life.

I’m moved by those messages, so they show up again and again in my books.

  • Throw in interesting or quirky stuff from life.

Some writers set stories in a town where they lived or visited. Some include minor characters they knew, with different names. Some give their main character a habit they have themselves (looking at you, Christina Delay, with your coffee-swigging characters). Some include phrases they’ve heard from friends, family, or—as mystery author Leann Sweeney reported—from the teacher’s lounge. Some fold in a brief retelling of something that happened in their own life.

In my most recent release, a short story from our Muse Island series titled Gryla’s Gift, someone at the holiday carnival opens a kissing booth. In our day and age, I’d be surprised if that’s even a thing. But when I was in high school, a close friend worked that booth at our choir-sponsored carnival (and raised decent money). It was a detail, but a fun one to include that worked with my story.

Add some quirky details to your story, like literary Easter eggs. That’s a fun way to add a bit of autobiography while maintaining your story as fiction.

How do feel your writing is autobiographical or personal? How have you mined your real life for story ideas?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Julie

Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn. Her most recent book is Curse of the Night, book four in the Muse Island series, and her most recent story is a holiday short, Gryla's Gift.

When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

30 responses to “How Much of Our Real Life Shows Up in Our Fiction?”

  1. I wish! But I've given the three main characters in my mainstream trilogy part of myself, especially in how they see they world, that are complementary - which makes it easier to hold more than one idea in my head.

    But not at the same time.

    Which is why, when I write one of the three, it can take me days to get back into the groove, channeling the pov character. I have my preferences, but my favorite comment is that people like my villain. So do I - but she crosses lines I won't. And yet I can see why.

    If I had the energy, and the patience to do the very hard work, I'd be an actor. Instead, I write, from my training and reading, about two actors and a writer they intersect with.

    When all you see is the final performance - or the published book - it seems so very easy. It is not.

    The trunk novel has a particular person as the victim of a crime - it is almost cliche that that victim is based on someone real. I thought I invented that, but no.

  2. LauraDrake says:

    I'm constantly surprised and amazed by how fact shows up in my fiction. It's like a dream your brain makes up, mixing parts and pieces. My WF, Days Made of Glass, is not biographical at all, but the relationship between the sisters is.

    I had NO idea you had that many books, Julie! Rock on you crazy diamond!

    • Julie Glover says:

      I need to read DAYS OF GLASS! I've read most of your other books but not that one yet. Teasing me with the sister relationship will move it up in the TBR pile.

      And I have that many drafts, not published books. I need to edit, polish, and publish, eh? That was the plan in 2020. [eye roll]

  3. Thank you for this terrific essay! Like Laura Drake says just above my comment, it is a mashup of experience and imagination. I am always asked if my novel The Sleeping Serpent is based on my own experience. I was inspired by a charismatic yoga teacher who compelled women. I have always been fascinated by cults and what makes people vulnerable - their need to belong. Those of you who have watching The Vow on Netflix see how it can happen to anyone!

  4. ecellenb says:

    Wonderful post Julie!
    I happened to be in the hospital room when my father passed away and saw his face bloom and then look at me with surprise moments before he died. I used this experience to write my first death scene. Experiences and imagination fuel all of my writing.

  5. tracybrody says:

    Love this article. I've included little character traits in my stories based on me or friends. The heroine in Desperate Choices isn't embarrassed to go for the piece of cake with lots of icing. 😉

    The rom-com I'm writing now does have a wide cast of secondary characters and basing some of them on specific people makes them standout and memorable rather than flat. My sister, her youngest, my travel buddy, my cousin and his wife, the kids in the special needs Sunday School class all make appearances along with the fictional leads.

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Julie. I have pieces of me (and friends and family) show up in lots of characters, but I can't imagine even wanting to write someone in their entirety, unless it's a biography or memoir. Where's the fun when you already know how the story turns out?!

  7. This is a great post and confirms many of the aspects of my writing. I enjoy hearing from friends and acquaintances that recognize certain aspects of my stories from our common experiences. I'm sharing this on my blog as well. Great information.

  8. barbdelong says:

    This post is brilliant. More than any other story I've written, my latest paranormal romance shows a huge chunk of me in my MC--her striving for perfection, coming up short and feeling unworthy. I realized this fact part way through the writing after reading a post such as this one. I can draw on my own feelings to write an authentic character. At some point, I've got to put a pin in it and say the book is done and the best I can do. Sigh.

  9. "This is such a great post and so so true!" she says, as she drinks her coffee.

  10. Great article, Julie. Sorry I'm so late in commenting.
    I think I've only ever fashioned one character from a person I know. The real-life person was a girlfriend of mine, and the character was my protagonist's best friend. I thought it fitting.
    Ironically, my girlfriend read the book a year or so after it was published and begged me to tell her who the best friend character was to me. She loved the character, but had no idea who the character reminded her of.
    Go figure. LOL.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Yours,
    Denise (Dee)

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    I think people want to connect to us as writers, so they try to connect the characters, their personalities, their events, flaws and shortcomings, glory and achievements, and are just sure all of it happened to the writer of the story. They will insist harder even when you say: no, it was from my creative place. Like denying it makes it so.

    denise

  12. XpatScot says:

    If you write from the heart, I wonder if it is even possible to not write about yourself in some way or another, either as a character or as a commentary on a character who is clearly not you.

    • Julie Glover says:

      I think we do reveal ourselves, but not necessarily real life specifics. We reveal what's important or how we think about things, but how much is autobiographical can depend on the author. Thanks!

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