Writing fiction from real-life experiences isn’t as easy as it sounds. Fiction writers—writers of short stories and novels—must know when to use real-life details and when those details don’t work well in prose. Putting your real life in writing can be inspiring, but it can be dangerous too.
Creating Fiction From Personal Experiences:
Life is a wealth of material for writers. Most fiction is autobiographical to some extent, as writers draw from their real-world experiences—a first kiss, graduation, birth, death, marriage, divorce, career changes, the assassination of JFK, the invention of Spam (both kinds). Sometimes a story is created from the tiniest real-life detail. You notice a little boy digging in the sand at the local playground, and this sparks an entire spin-off—a full-length novel about a man who makes a living digging wells. (Sounds boring but of course you’ll make sure there’s a clever hook, won’t you?)
Creating Fiction From Other People’s Experiences:
Grab a National Enquirer and take a look at the headlines. Surely, there’s something that calls to your creative side in “Man Captures Muck Monster” or “How to Make Millions with Beet Juice.” Or drift back to your childhood/adolescence, and think about someone you haven’t seen since. Did Mary Sue, the terribly shy, mistreated girl who never spoke, become a radio personality or a serial killer? There are many possibilities.
There are many well-known authors who have used their work backgrounds to create believable, technically correct fiction. John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell come to mind. Grisham made a name for himself writing legal thrillers based on his experiences as an attorney; Cornwell worked in a medical examiner’s office and turned this experience into a series of medical examiner thrillers. The inside knowledge these two authors possess contributed to their success and made their fiction believable.
Warnings About Writing Fiction Based On Real Life:
Consider this story: Once upon a time there was a man who was born, went to school, became a teacher, got married, had two children, and died at the age of 82. This man collected stamps, was afraid of flying, and once broke two ribs in a silly fraternity stunt back in college. During his lifetime, he helped his children and his students become better, more well-rounded people, which is a great accomplishment. But is it a novel?
Most fiction stems from real life, but if you think about the lives of ordinary people, there’s not usually a novel to be had. Real life is messy and complicated and doesn’t follow the rules of fiction; it’s also boring at times…mundane. The trick is to lift characters, events, tragedies, and triumphs from the pages of real life and create a new existence for them—using literary techniques and a good dose of creativity to make them more exciting, more interesting, more disturbing—more worthy of being read.
Just be careful that you’re being honest with the way you show real life in fiction. If you become too emotionally attached to turning your real-life story into fiction, you may lose sight of those elements that differentiate a smooth, well-crafted story from a real-life tale. Emotion can be a stumbling block if a writer isn’t flexible.
Also, sometimes a real-life story simply won’t “feel” real in writing. For example, a story about a jaded “loose cannon” Italian cop who solves mafia murders in New Jersey might be cliché and unbelievable—whether he’s real or not. When real life becomes too unbelievable for good fiction, writing nonfiction is often a better choice.
Disguising a real-life story as fiction doesn’t necessarily ensure that you’ll avoid lawsuits. In a previous article on creative nonfiction, we discussed the possible legal ramifications of using real people in your fiction. Exposing the school principal’s quirky bedroom habits is a risky proposition that could lead to a lawsuit. Better to model a character after the principal; as a writer, you can improve on his character to better suit your story, and no one will be humiliated or prevent your child from graduating elementary school. The same holds true for transplanting Cousin Ida into your fiction; she’s a true character in real life, but she’ll likely need some tweaking if she’s going to feature in a story.
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Well written and helpful article.
In my novels,I have used the morals or lack thereof, personality, and occasional habit of acquaintenances in portraying my fictional characters. In some cases this was unintentional, in other cases I deliberately used the traits of people I admired or found offensive.This method is safe to apply if the author is not too explicit. So far, this approach has worked for me without troublesome side effects.
Writer’s Relief is my new official favorite website! Thanks for everything, guys!
Thanks to everyone for your kind comments! We wish you much happy writing!
Thank you so much for such good tips. Having read this article,
I so want to start writing now.
Thanks for your comment, Nida! We’re so glad our article inspired you!
I enjoyed your article. Do you have any information on how to write fiction using an autobiography from the public domain of a famous person? If you do, I want to get (buy) some. Thanks.
Dale: You’ll want to proceed with caution since that could be interpreted as real-person fan fiction–which most professionals tend to frown upon. It’s better for you to create an original character. Good luck!
i am in the process of delving into fictional writing after autobiographical writing when i added fictional episodes to heighten the interest, action, character etc. i think i succeeded in translating real life characters into the fictional world, judging from responses.
i enjoyed and appreciated the articles!
I tend to START with real life and fictionalize as it suits the story I’m trying to portray. But, with that in mind, i guess it’s no shock that I write more essays than fiction!
i had some experience of real life fiction with my second loosely autobiographical book called KISSING DRAGON! i now wish to venture into total fiction which of course is bound to be somewhat autobiographical too!
Thanks this article really help
Great article esp since I just started a true crime and while I have rights from the victim and the family, I do not have rights from the person whom we believe is the killer or the police who fouled the investigation with their tunnel vision. I am in discussions with my publisher and agent if we should change the names or not.
I recently completed a 4000 word, true crime short story. The story was told from my perspective as a beat cop (15 years ago) who responded to a tragic incident where an eleven year old boy shot and killed his younger brother (in my presence). All names and locations were changed to protect the identity of surviving family members. No one was ever charged (due to age and other factors).
Does that sound like a story that will invite legal problems when published?
Thx guys I am currently writing a book loosely based off of people I know and what I wish would happen. You know, the little scenarios we all come up with and this really helped.
Thanks for this article I really apprciated this article.I just want to ask if it’s interesting to write a fiction about a real tribe group?
I want to publish a fictive autobiography of me. Please guide me
Great article, I want to write a book about my life. I’ve lived a very challenging and unique life. I’m looking for a writer to speak with me to see if what I lived is worthy of ink. Long story short, I’m looking for a partner to write a book with me. Please contact me if interested—my story is like nothing else.
Hey Dave, it seems you have a lot to express and tell to the world. I would like to hear your breathtaking story and contribute. Kindly contact me if the offer still stands. Regards.
Hi, my name is Jennifer and I am currently in the process of writing a book about my experience working, and running a 24-hour Residential Treatment Center for Juvenile Sex Offenders with co-occurring diagnosis. The boys that I worked with were victim turned perpetrators. It was astounding to witness what I did during the years that I ran the program. I do have a literary agent, I just need advice on what “genre” this book would fall under? I have struggled with this since its inception. I know I will be sued, if I write it as non fiction or a memoir. What I have done, is take three to four of the boys and intertwine them into one person. What would a book based on true events be called? What would be your best advice on how to move forward? Thank you kindly, Jennifer Coleman
Generally, a fictional piece based on real events is still fiction. That being said, many memoirs either change names or alter identifying features to protect the real life people the characters are based on. If you’re still worried about the legal ramifications, we’d recommend speaking to a lawyer, seeing that we aren’t authorized to give legal advice. Hope this helps!
Hi, thanks for a great article! I have a question, may I call a true story about a man who is not famous a biography? Or should I just include a subtitle “The true story of …”?
Looking forward to your reply.
A biography is a written history of a person’s life. The person does not have to be famous.
I have been reading posts regarding this topic and this post is one of the most interesting and informative ones I have read. Thank you for this! Truth brings people together, and it generates a sense of sincerity in the storytelling process that hooks the readers to read more. Integrating historical facts and daily life experiences will carry a universal truth that everyone shares.