It’s normal to take instances from your own life and use them as inspiration for your writing. There are a variety of ways to do this when creating works of fiction, and that includes autobiographical fiction—a genre that blends fiction and non-fiction, truths and non-truths, and memoir and satire.
Whether you’re embarking on your first foray into writing autobiographical fiction or looking for advice on how to write impactful autofiction stories, we’ve put together this helpful guide to this genre-breaking form. We’ll cover what should be included in an autobiographical fiction piece, as well as the best books for people who want to write an autobiographical fiction and how to take those works and emulate them in your own writing.
For some great additional insight, check out this course on autobiographical fiction from creative writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter Adam Janos, where you’ll get tons of actionable takeaways for getting started on your autofiction masterpiece.
What is Autobiographical Fiction?
What is the meaning of autobiographical? And more importantly, how can it apply to fiction writing? This can be a confusing genre to wrap your mind around, so let’s start with an autobiographical fiction definition.
Autobiographical fiction refers to a story that uses made-up characters and events to represent an author’s actual experiences. Put another way, it’s based in fact but not factual—or loosely based on real events versus serving as a true retelling of what happened.
Various elements that may be made up, embellished, or otherwise fabricated in a work of autobiographical fiction include characters, locations, timelines, occurrences, conflicts and consequences, and even the plot itself.
Authors use this technique when they want to take inspiration from their own life experiences without writing a piece that is wholly tied to what really happened. In this way, it’s pretty much the same as drawing inspiration for fiction from anywhere else, with your own connection to the story being more of an ancillary factor, rather than its defining feature.
It’s very likely that you’ve read works of autobiographical fiction without being aware of the author’s real-life connection to the piece—and you may have even happened to write some autofiction of your own without being aware of what you were doing.
How is Autobiography Different From Realistic Fiction?
Is this autobiographical fiction definition blurring the lines a bit between what you might normally define as realistic fiction? It’s normal to get these two terms confused, but there are some notable differences.
To help keep them straight, think of realistic fiction as being a broader genre that could include autobiographical fiction but also any other fictional piece that’s based on believable events based on our current understanding of reality. It’s stories grounded in the world as we know it, with the sorts of problems, events, and relationships that many of us face in our day-to-day lives—or at least may conceivably face at some point. This rules out things like wizard school, zombies, and dragons, since (as far as we know) they don’t exist in our current reality.
Autobiographical fiction could be realistic, but it could also be fantastical. So while it may occasionally intersect with realistic fiction, it’s not a given.
Autobiographical Fiction Examples
Reading is one of the most effective ways to improve both your writing skills and your understanding of how to write within a specific genre. With that in mind, here are some of the best contemporary and classic autobiographical fiction examples that you should consider adding to your library.
The Best Books for People Who Want to Write an Autobiographical Fiction
- A Death in the Family by James Agee
- Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Youth by Tove Ditlevsen
- The Lover by Marguerite Duras
- Heartburn by Nora Ephron
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
- Cherry by Nico Walker
- Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
- Black Boy by Richard Wright
Looking for something a little shorter to get the ball rolling? In his Skillshare course, Janos recommends Junot Diaz’s The Cheater’s Guide to Love and Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person as short pieces of fiction that exemplify the genre.
In all of these stories, the writers weave in real experiences from their lives into an otherwise fictional narrative. In The Joy Luck Club, for example, main character Jing-mei (June) Woo reconnects with her heritage on a journey to China, much like author Amy Tan did in real life. And the road trip narrative in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is loosely based on two real-life road trips that author Hunter S. Thompson took with his friend Oscar Zeta-Acosta.
You could read and enjoy these books without ever knowing that at least some of the story is inspired by real-life characters and events. Likewise, you could read them as known works of autobiographical fiction and attempt to take away some deeper meaning about the author’s life. In either case, the stories are excellent examples of autobiographical fiction, and each is a classic in its own right.
Getting Started: How to Write Autobiographical Fiction
How do you write an autobiographical fiction novel or story? Like any type of writing, it’s half technique, half riding the wave of wherever your imagination takes you.
Ultimately, how you get to the finish line is up to you. But here are some of the essential steps you’ll want to take when writing autobiographical fiction.
Step 1: Create a Central Figure
All stories have a central figure, also known as a protagonist. For autobiographical fiction, that’s often going to be someone based on yourself, though there’s no hard and set rule that says your main character has to be autobiographically based. Your protagonist could be based on someone you know or someone you’ve made up entirely but who is facing events that are at least somewhat driven by your own experiences.
Most important is that your central figure has a clear narrative arc, and that, as with any piece of writing, they grapple with some sort of conflict within the scope of that narrative.
Step 2: Mine Your Memories
Your memory is going to play a major role in outlining your story, even if events don’t take place in or resolve themselves in the same way.
Because conflict is such a key part of fiction, a good place to start is by honing in on a negative feeling you’ve had and then drawing out memories from there. Even if the story that you want to tell is a happy one, you’re still going to need to introduce some sort of emotional discomfort in order to keep your readers engaged.
A good example: think of the first time you had your heart broken. What were the circumstances surrounding it? Who were the major players? How did you end up overcoming the situation and moving on?
By looking inward, you’ll gain material and inspiration for your piece of autobiographical fiction, as well as insight into how real people react to real situations.
Step 3: Set Your Pace
When we talk about what should be included in an autobiographical fiction, we often focus on concrete things: characters, locations, and so on. But the pace of your story is just as crucial and can make or break how impactful your story ends up being.
Again, start with the major conflict, since that’s the anchor of your story. What was the backstory that led to it happening? What happened afterward? These are the bookends of your story, and they’re just as important as the anchor itself.
You don’t need to tell your story linearly. Nor do you need to explain every single detail in depth. Write out what you think needs to be included in a cadence and structure that makes sense to you, then edit it down from there as you move on to your subsequent drafts.
Step 4: Add Some Description
The devil is in the details, and in fiction, a lot of the beauty is in the details too. You have your protagonist, your central conflict, and the general outline of your story, so now fill it in with additional details that help round it out. This will include things like describing certain locations more fully or adding more dimension to your characters.
Why do this so late in the game? By focusing your first draft(s) just on the narrative itself, you give yourself an opportunity to work out the kinks prior to putting time and effort into descriptive prose, which is more the icing on the cake than the substance that keeps your readers coming back for more.
Step 5: Refine and Edit
Editing is a crucial step with anything that you write. And it’s particularly useful when writing autobiographical fiction, since when you’re personally connected to a story it may take time to set yourself outside of it and view it from a more objective—and more fictionalized—angle.
Janos recommends that your final piece be about 80% scene and 20% exposition. He also notes that as one of his own personal best practices, he uses text-to-speech to have his story read back to him so he can approach it as a reader, rather than as its author.
The more you practice autobiographical fiction, the better you’ll get at working out your own ideal processes for getting story to page. So now ask yourself: what is your story—and how are you going to tell it?
Bring Your Stories to Life
Autobiographical Fiction: Write a Short Story From Personal Experience