How fictitious is fiction?

Several queries I’ve read recently have said “My novel is 99% true life” or “My novel is based on the events in my life” or “My experience as a schizophrenic in jail – just like the protagonist – makes me the perfect person to write the novel.” This makes me nervous.

I suppose on the one hand, using life experience is good because it makes your writing authentic. I wrote a short story that takes place in Warsaw and I used all my knowledge of the city and Polish culture to make it as real as possible. But the story wasn’t about my experience or even anything I’d ever done in Poland. It was more 3% experience and 97% fiction. Because if I had tried to make it a story about what I had experienced, I think it would be an absolutely horrible story. Once you commit yourself to trying to convey your experiences, you lose some of the autonomy of fiction. You will stick too closely to the facts of what you experienced and forget to create. Worst, in revisions it will not only be about fixing your writing but changing your experience. All in all, too much truth in a story makes for a bad writing experience. And once you’ve gotten one book published about your experiences in Panama, where will the next one come from? Will you even know how to create a story of your own?

I know I take this to the extreme; I never consciously base any characters on people I’ve met in real life. People always tell me: oh, you must have so many ideas to write about! Or, that was a bad experience, but it will be great in a novel someday! Or, oh, Whidbey Island will be great for writing because you can have your pick of horses, boating, biking, hiking…! And I smile and nod and try not to roll my eyes because I really make it all up as I go (sorry to break the news to those of you who’ve ever said something like that to me). Of course, I’m no expert and I know people really do use their experiences. But I don’t think it should be a claim that you put in your query as if to prove that somehow it makes your story better. If anything it makes it less of a novel and more of a memoir. Which one do you want your book to be?

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3 thoughts on “How fictitious is fiction?

  1. What a great distinction. You have me in agreement with your line of thinking Katie. I am excited to think of the inspiration that you receive is great enough to allow you to write pure fiction. I like the clarification you give in the comparison of memoir to fiction.

  2. Katie I think you have very valid arguments. I do think that the author’s personal experiences over time gives him or her a deeper perspective on the human condition and the boundaries of behavior and emotion. I would suspect that authors who have more human experience either directly or in the third person probably have the ability to come up with a greater variety and texture in their fictional creation.

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