Home > Random Musings, Writing > When Fiction Isn’t Fact

When Fiction Isn’t Fact


Yesterday, I found an interesting conversation going on at Janet Reid’s blog. The entry was about memoir writing (beautiful quotes there), and I stopped to read some of the comments. I was intrigued, and I put in my two cents.

A commenter was arguing that all fiction is part memoir. Or, put another way, that everything a writer writes is partially autobiographical. The implication is that every work of fiction bears the author’s real life in it.

I can’t agree to that. For one thing, it means that a writer can only write about himself/herself. So, Harry Potter is really J.K. Rowling in disguise. What would that mean, exactly, for Nabokov and Lolita? Or Robert Browning’s erotically charged (and possibly lethal) Porphyria’s Lover?

While I do agree that writing is informed by an individual’s life experiences, I do not think it’s the only foundational element. For one thing, imagination plays a large role in writing. If I imagine a talking unicorn in a book (The Last Unicorn, anyone?), does that mean I see myself as a rare, endangered creature? Or am I simply trying to tell a story – and I happen to think unicorns are cool? That fictitious unicorn is just that: fictitious. It’s a tool. It’s a way to tell a story. It is a means to an end.

I don’t believe we’re limited to only the things that occur/happen to us (as writers). I know I’m speaking like some sort of collective. I promise, I’m not a member of the Borg. (Resistance is futile! Hand over the coffee!) That, in my opinion, is where research comes in. It’s where historical texts come in. It’s how a writer can fill a plot hole or flesh out a character. (That imagery always creeps me out. Flesh OUT? As opposed to what? Flesh IN? Ick.) It is a large part of historical fiction, where the gaps are filled in with truth via research. For instance, Deanna Raybourn’s and Michelle Moran’s novels.

The beauty of fiction (and I hope this isn’t a trade secret) is that it isn’t true – but (good fiction, effective fiction) rings true. It’s why internal struggles resonate with an audience. It’s why people still root for the underdog and for Good to triumph over Evil. I think that if all we wanted from fiction was truth, we’d read non-fiction.

What do YOU think?

  1. July 28, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Obviously, my heart sang when I read your reference to “Porphyria’s Lover.” Drawing myself away from a side rant about the poem, I agree with you. Self, imagination, research – key ingredients in fiction soup. Fiction allows readers to discover their own truths through the untrue – or in some cases even escape their truths through those moments of fantasy.

    Now hand me some coffee, and let me walk in line with the rest of the writers who invent and reinvent every day of their lives.

    • Ali
      July 28, 2011 at 11:35 am

      Fiction soup! Love that. And I agree with you, Rachel, fiction allows readers to discover truth AND escape reality through fantasy. *hands over some coffee*

  2. Sean
    July 28, 2011 at 9:21 am

    I agree. There’s a big difference between being “in” your writing and your writing being about you. My fiction definitely contains emotional and thematic elements that have roots in my past, but to claim that my fiction is autobiographical is simply incorrect. It’s me, but it’s not “about” me.

    • Ali
      July 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

      Yes! That is the exact distinction I believe in. Thank you for wording that so brilliantly, Sean. 🙂

  3. July 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

    Autobiographical? Hell, no. My WIP is about a teenage boy. I have not (to my knowledge) ever been a teenage boy.

    • Ali
      July 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

      Patty, I nearly spit out my coffee. Excellent point! *grin*

  4. Josh A. Kruschke
    July 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

    I’m going to keep it simple to day and just say:


  5. sharono360
    July 28, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Yes, and yes! I agree with you..!

    • Ali
      July 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

      Thank you for reading, Sharon!!

  6. Liz
    July 28, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Interesting thoughts. I’d have a tendency to agree with that that person said about the autobiographical element… but I prefer to think that maybe it’s more in terms of “every artist leaves a trace of themselves” in their work. Not literally, though.

    • Ali
      July 28, 2011 at 11:38 am

      *nodding* Yes, Liz, I concur. 🙂 Thank you for reading!!

  7. Jak
    July 28, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I’ve always had a hard time agreeing to that, because I’ve written characters and situations that I’ve never been in, and would react differently to myself. If I were ever stuck in the rain forest I’m fairly sure that I would either succumb to some sort of tropical disease or be eaten by army ants within a week.

    • Ali
      July 29, 2011 at 8:37 am

      Ha! Very, very good point. If I were stranded in a jungle, I would definitely suffer for it. Thank you very much for reading and sharing your insight. I appreciate it. 🙂

  8. July 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    A very seasoned and fairly successful writer told me the same thing, that all fiction contains some autobiographical elements. At the time I was very unseasoned (some would say bland and in need of salt and maybe some smoked paprika) so I nodded and accepted it. Now that I’ve actually written two mysteries, I’d like to meet up with him again so I could tell him I disagree. There’s nothing autobiographical in my fiction.

    • Ali
      July 29, 2011 at 8:40 am

      Mmmm, paprika. (I have a deep love for that spice.) I have been on the receiving end of great advice and less than great advice. Like you, as an unseasoned writer, I probably would’ve taken that advice to heart at one point. But now, like you, I can add a nice big chunk of salt to it. Thank you for sharing that, Gayle. I’m glad that you did.

  9. July 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I agree. Some people just have the gift to live outside themselves. Imagine that?

    • Ali
      July 29, 2011 at 8:40 am

      *gasp* Not that! *grin* Thank you for commenting, Nicola!

  10. July 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Agreed! I blogged on a semi-similar topic awhile back. I feel like bits and pieces of me tend to often come out in the thoughts, ideas and dreams of my characters, but that in no way means that my work is autobiographical. Just that I wrote it. *grin*

    • Ali
      July 29, 2011 at 8:41 am

      Yes, you did. We’ve definitely had that discussion, too — outside of blogs. Thank you for commenting here, Andrea!

  11. July 28, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    I didn’t know The Last Unicorn was a book too. My daughter loves the movie but now I think I’ll have to find the book so I can read it.

    • Ali
      July 29, 2011 at 8:42 am

      It is a book! It’s a good one. I am now shocked to say that I don’t it. I own the movie. On DVD. Yes, I’m that big of a dork. *grin* I hope that you enjoy the book!

  12. Anonymous
    August 1, 2011 at 4:10 pm


    I read that article today and I felt as though it tied in quite nicely with what you were talking about here.


    • Ali
      August 1, 2011 at 7:30 pm

      Thank you for that — it is a wonderful article! In fact, I’ve now written out several quotes from it, and they’re tacked to the cork board on my wall. 🙂

      • Jessica
        August 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm

        That was totally me being a creeper – I have a new computer at work and I forgot to write my name in because it auto-fills on the old one. Haha

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