autobiographical novel

It’s a common problem. You’re eagerly writing the story of your life from beginning to end when suddenly you get to that jerk you’d love to omit—you know, the ex-spouse from hell, maybe the sibling you haven’t spoken to in decades, or some other diabolical character.

You don’t even want to think about this loser, let alone write about him. Why open old wounds? Or you might worry that if you tell the truth about him you’ll hurt others, or maybe get slapped with a lawsuit.

Then there are the embarrassing “What was I thinking?!” moments in your life that you’d like to scrub from your story. Or maybe your life is somewhat convoluted and hard to follow; too many people, places, events, and other things to cover. You’d like to simplify things to make it an easier, more interesting read.

As a ghostwriter, I’ve been faced with this problem more than once. One of my clients requested just “a little adjustment” in her autobiography—meaning she wanted to leave out husbands number two and three. Another client, a man who’d had a lengthy relationship with a business partner, regaled me with stories of what a jerk the partner was—and that was when he was sober. When drunk, the guy could be a real terror. This drunk’s bad behavior seriously affected my client’s business and life, but the client insisted that I totally whitewash this bozo in the book.

All this raises an important question: Is fibbing allowed in autobiographies? The quick and firm answer is no. However, deviating from the truth is expected in the autobiographical novel.

Consider Writing an Autobiographical Novel

An autobiographical novel? That sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, an autobiography is a purely fact-based presentation of one’s life, whereas a novel is a fictionalized tale that springs from the author’s imagination. Given that an autobiography is supposed to be 100 percent truthful, while a novel is an invention, how can the two possibly intersect?

Writers have long known how to combine truth with fiction to produce works that are factual in essence, even though names were changed, characters were created, certain details were omitted or amended, the storyline was simplified or enhanced to produce a better read, and other alterations were made. These works are considered autobiographical novels.

Think of the autobiographical novel as “veiled fiction.”

Imagine a spectrum, with the truth at one end and fiction at the other.

Strictly speaking, the autobiography falls at the extreme end of the “truth” section. Stripped down to its essence, an autobiography can consist of nothing more than a series of factual statements such as “I was born in Los Angeles in 1966,” or “I graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in history in 1988,” or “I visited the Louvre museum for the third time in 2011.” While it wouldn’t be terribly interesting to read, it would be a complete and truthful description of the author’s life and, hence, an autobiography.

On the other end of the spectrum is fiction. We’re most familiar with fiction in the form of novels, which might feature completely made-up characters, events, and stories—maybe even superheroes and secret agents, torrid romances, and sweeping sagas of families that rise and fall over generations. Readers understand that works of fiction need not contain a single truthful statement or fact, or a single real person or locale.

What Lies Between

The autobiographical novel, a mixture of truth and fiction, lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It’s truthful in the sense that the author remains the protagonist, and most of the other characters are either real or strongly based on real people and what they’ve said and done. And most of the events are presented pretty much as they occurred.

But certain events may be omitted to simplify the storyline. And what was actually said might be tweaked so the reader can get to the point sooner, or understand what’s happening more easily.

Names and other identifying information may be changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty) or to avoid offending someone who might file a lawsuit. When my wife and I worked on the autobiography of a well-known celebrity, we were asked to omit his extramarital activities because of the possibility of a lawsuit.

Characters may be combined to simplify things. One of my clients had a very exciting but confusing life and had interacted with hundreds of people over the course of decades. Keeping track of all of them was nearly impossible, so we combined characters to create a more manageable cast, allowing a few people to stand in for all of the relatives, a few others for the artistic associates, and so on.

Then there are certain fiction writing techniques that may be used, allowing you to sacrifice a bit of truth in order to make the book more interesting or fun. You may, for example, pop back and forth in time, or withhold certain information until the end in order to build suspense.

And, let’s be honest, some autobiographical novel authors may change certain events and dialogue just to make themselves look better or create a better ending. (If I were to write my life story, I’d certainly omit the D I got in handwriting in the fourth grade, along with a bunch of other things I’d rather not mention here. Or anywhere else.)

Should You Write an Autobiographical Novel?

The answer to this depends on your goal.

If you want to stick to the absolute truth, write a “straight” autobiography. Yes, you may end up presenting yourself in a less-than-flattering light, and you may offend certain people. But you will have told your story truthfully.

If, on the other hand, you’re more concerned with “improving” your life story or protecting somebody’s reputation (including your own) by fudging the truth, write an autobiographical novel.

Many excellent and influential books have used this approach. David Copperfield, written by Charles Dickens in 1850, is a disguised retelling of his younger years. James Baldwin’s autobiographic novel Go Tell It on the Mountain recounts his struggle with growing sexual awareness while growing up in a religious and repressive family. Time magazine pronounced it one of the 100 best American novels published between 1923 and 2005. And the bestseller My Struggle, by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, is a series of autobiographical novels translated in over fifteen languages.

Perhaps with a little artful invention, your life story could become a wonderful autobiographical novel. You’ll never know until you try!

(This article was originally published by Barry Fox on “Live, Write, Thrive.”