Is it bad to have autobiographical elements in stories?
The truth is, whether we realise it or not, there are many autobiographical representations in our stories.
This happens because we draw on our own experiences which we use to either layer the stories or our characters, and this is particularly true for those embarking on their first novel.
In essence, it’s not a bad thing at all – writers often project themselves into stories and characters because we all have to work from something. The only negative is that when it happens too much, and a great deal of ‘ourselves’ find a way into the stories, the strength of the story may be diminished.
As with everything in fiction, it is about balance. Remember, fiction is just that – most of it should be fictitious.
Usually our first creations – the characters we choose as first time writers – are often a facsimile of ourselves, an ‘alter ego’ with a few embellishments. Most writers would admit they’ve done so, and it lends to the learning process.
When I first started writing, there was a lot of me in one of my very first characters, albeit a little taller, but she was feisty and strong like me, and she had many of my darker personality traits, because that’s the kind of character I felt at ease with – someone like me.
There was nothing wrong with that, but I did have to ease back on just how much of me crept into the character, and at the editing stage it made me realise I was writing a fictitious story with a fictitious character, not a life story about me. I realised I had to find a balance of the two – the real and the fictitious, otherwise the story would feel somewhat stilted.
As already pointed out, this happened because as a first time writer I didn’t really know how to create a character from scratch – so many elements of writing were daunting at that time – so it was easier to place myself in the story as the character and then mould the character as I went along.
This happened many times, whether the character was female or male. Eventually, through experience, I was able to create characters with their own personalities and traits, people who bore no resemblance to me whatsoever. They became stand-alone creations.
That said, there are certain elements that I can borrow from my own personality and implant them into my characters if I think it necessary, to add that extra flavour and dimension.
The same is true of our experiences – which the last two articles looked at. The things we have done or accomplished or experienced will always find a home in our stories because they all lend to the essence of the story, but again make sure that they form part of the story arc.
Of course, there is a negative to this too – don’t deliberately create scenes just so you can manifest your experiences in great detail i.e. you write a scene with a character visiting a city just because you’ve been there and you want to show off your knowledge.
Settings and scenes should always come about naturally within the story arc.
It’s better to set the story against a certain place to begin with rather than have your character magically appear there in chapter 14 when it bears no real correlation to the story.
I’ve often said that stories are like paintings – they are made up of many layers and colours and textures, with foreground and background and characters etc.
So let’s go back to the initial question: Is it bad to have autobiographical elements in stories?
No, not at all, as long as you have a balance of the real elements and the fictional ones. Lend too much of yourself to the story and you could end up ruining it. Remember, the stories are not about you, they are about the characters you’ve created. It’s their story, their life.
The best way to avoid such negatives is to pay attention at the editing stage. If you think that too much of yourself has crept into the character, then pare it back. By all means lend some elements of yourself and your experiences, but don’t overdo it!
· Look for balance in a character – a lot of fictional with a touch of realism.
· Make sure the story arc lends itself to the settings and plot – don’t create them willy-nilly just because you want to show off.
· Real life experiences should provide a touch of realism and depth and should form a natural parallel with the plot – never force them into the narrative.
· Don’t deliberately set out to write about yourself as the character.
· Always be aware of these elements when editing.
Next week: The art of ‘weaving’ situations, plots and characters into your stories.