An email arrived the other day:
I have discovered your website and wonder if you could help. For many years I have had a book idea floating around in my head based on my own life but with characters' names changed, etc. Many friends, my GP and my philosophy lecturer at college have all suggested I do it. So now that I have 9 months free before I start my university degree, I would like to write my book.
I am not sure where to turn and would be grateful for any advice. My story is based on true events and people (with names changed) and details slightly different. It's not going to be a literary masterpiece— more like a "chick lit" book, great for reading by the pool on holiday.
My first question is, if those people in the book recognise themselves in the characters, what if any come back can there be? Secondly , I have written my plan along with my characters' backgrounds for reference and know the story off by heart. It is a modern-day fairy tale with gritty and heartbreaking twists and turns along the way and an ending that has you chewing your nails off. However, I have written the first chapter as if I am the narrator which I believe that is called the third person. When I read it, I thought perhaps I should write it as if I am the main character telling my story so I can build a relationship with the reader and gain their empathy.
To deal with the last issue first, "third person" means describing the characters' actions and thoughts as "he said" and "she wondered." The author pretty well stays out of the story except to provide occasional interruptions for necessary explanations. (These are usually UNnecessary and the characters themselves can do the explaining.)
It's possible to tell a story in first person in a couple of ways: In The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway is the first-person narrator, but he's really telling a third-person story about Gatsby and Daisy. Or the narrator can be the central character, reporting whatever he or she sees and hears and thinks.
For new writers, both forms of first-person narrative are dangerous. The Carraway-style narrative is technically hard to pull off because the narrator's own personality may get in the way. The straight first-person narrative is dangerous because it's too easy—the character tends to sound just like the author. So in general I'd stick with third-person omniscient.
(Digression: For more on point of view, see my post "Narrative Voice" in my July 2003 archives, which contain the "handouts" from a course I used to teach in writing fiction.)
As for the main question, we are on dangerous ground when we write a roman à clef, or "story with a key." It's a form of autobiographical fiction, and it poses both technical and ethical issues.
Technical first: Very few lives assume the structure of a narrative. We have to pick and choose the details that will make it a "good story," and that means distorting the actual events that inspired us in the first place. As a very young writer, I tried writing a novel about my college years, with all my buddies playing their parts, but it rapidly fell apart: if I maintained a documentary accuracy, the story got boring, and if I jazzed it up, it felt dishonest as hell.
I ran into the same problem a few years later when I discovered the story of the black pioneers who came to British Columbia in the 1858 gold rush. It seemed like a super subject for a historical western, but the more I learned about the pioneers, the more I came to respect them and their achievements. I would have felt terrible distorting them and their achievements just to make a better page-turner. So I ended up writing Go Do Some Great Thing, a factual history of the pioneers.
And just to confirm me in my opinion, I actually tried for several years to write a kind of "alternate history" autobiographical novel, about a guy like me who makes decisions far different from the ones I've made. It was an attempt to see how I might have turned out if I'd been a bit more of a jerk than I am. Another disaster.
Nonetheless, many serious writers do succeed in autobiographical fiction. Scott Fitzgerald's novels are a multi-volume autobiography; he even got sore at his crazy wife because she was using "his" material in writing her own autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz. Hemingway wrote a lot of his pals (and enemies) into such novels as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. He was always the hero, and it was embarrassing to see his heroes get older and older while the heroines got younger and younger.
And this leads to the ethical issue: Assuming you're a capable writer who can cherry-pick real-life events and string them into a story, should you presume to make money and your reputation by, in effect, ratting out your friends? It really is an invasion of privacy; we normally deal with one another off the record, and we resent it when a shared confidence becomes public gossip. More people would sue the authors of autobiographical fiction, if not for the fact that a lawsuit would only publicize the breach of confidence.
For what it's worth, here's my solution: Of course the events of our lives inspire us to write fiction, and in a sense all fiction is autobiographical. Even my fantasy novels are set in terrain I know (the Canadian Rockies and western Alberta), and the characters share traits with me and people I know.
But I try to abstract the issues from the events. As an anxious father of daughters, I may write about harm done to young women, but the young women are not much like my actual daughters. I also change the circumstances—not to conceal "what really happened" but to enhance the point I'm trying to make. Once freed of the need to be factually accurate, I can design a setting that makes (for example) harm done to young women a truly appalling event.
So in the case my correspondent wants to write about, I'd pull way back from the true details and try to find a pattern. Then I'd design my characters and setting to bring out that pattern. It might still be set in my own home town, or I might find that some other city makes a better background. (When we set a story in a particular place, we are in effect saying that place is itself a character in the story, which couldn't have turned out the same if set anywhere else.)
The main character might be somewhat like the real person who inspired my story, but I'd try to develop the personality and motives to highlight the points I want to make: the heroine might be more aggressive, the hero more passive, than in reality, if those traits made it easier to develop scenes and a plot to illustrate my theme.
This is not to discourage my correspondent—just to bring up the hazards that will inevitably emerge in the writing of an autobiographical novel. For my earlier comments on autobiographical fiction, see this post from October 2004.