1. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    Your personal experiences in a story

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Eunoia, Feb 13, 2011.

    So I've been watching this TV show, or rather what I can find of it on YouTube, and in the season I've just finished watching one of the characters' book gets published and the character talks about writing, defending her book saying that she took her personal experiences and put them into an imaginary world or something along those lines, I can't quite remember. Her book has characters and a plot line which is basically exactly like her life, like she'd changed her friends' names by their first letter e.g. say her friend was called Sam, she'd have renamed it Pam. Anyway, this really annoyed me and I wanted to scream at her that she wasn't writing fiction and didn't know anything about writing. Okay, okay, I know it's a fictional character in a TV show but still.

    This isn't for a story I'm writing or anything, but I just wondered what your opinions were about how much of your own personal experiences can you put into a story without it being considered non-fiction/autobiographical? How much of your personal experiences do you put into your fictional writing, and how do you make sure you're writing fiction, and not just an autobiographical account?
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Its not something I do but have you read Gervase Phinn ? His books are wonderful, he is the MC, it has his wife and his son. I don't know how much of the rest is fiction or fact, but they are brilliant. If you haven't read his books my advice is to do them on audiobook if you can though - I laugh so hard I can barely read them.
     
  3. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I very rarely use my own experiences. I use the settings I encounter - I never dared write anything set at university until I went - but the scenarios and characters are all different. I think in my case it's because my life is so boring and the plotlines of my life still firmly unresolved, so there's not really much I COULD write about me that anyone would want to read. I'm not the sort of person who looks to the real world for inspiration much in any case.

    I agree that changing just a few details to something that otherwise happened is still just autobiographical - and also feels like cheating the reader since it's trying to cover it up. If you're going to be honest about it being factual I won't mind, but if I were to read a novel and then the author's information, and they matched up, I would be annoyed. :p
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Even when a story is completely different to my normal life, I use my experiences in writing. I don't think anyone can help it, honestly. Some people are not comfortable with this, I don't see it as a problem; sometimes, my best writing comes from things in my childhood, and life now.
     
  5. Douglas Rumbaugh
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    Douglas Rumbaugh Member

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    I agree with Lemex, while you are writing your own experiences and biases work their way into your work regardless. That is the reason some people are extremely private writers and never show their work to anyone, because when you give someone something you have written you are giving them a piece of yourself. Your thoughts, dreams, ambitions, experiences, all of it can easily be revealed through your writing without you even realizing it. But then this is the same for all forms of art, from music to painting, so it is hardly exclusive to writing.
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    LOL that is true my best friend and husband can't read my work - they say it is like sitting inside my head for several hours. They already knew I was bonkers they don't need to read it. They also see better than I do who the characters are based on etc.
     
  7. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    Almost everything I write about has at least a fraction of personal experience in it. It an be a situation a character of mine has to deal with or it can be something as vague as a character seeing one of my "personal experiences" and contemplating how it affects him (ie: main character sees a couple boarding a plane late and contemplates how he had to wait for them--I've boarded a plane late).

    It's easily different than (or rather would be very difficult to produce) an autobiographical account through these situations if you are writing fiction. Basically, life is made up of a myriad of personal experiences, and you can put them all into fiction writing in one way or another (ie: If John punched you or a friend of yours in real life, then you can easily write about Phillip punching your main character in a story you are writing because you've experienced it.). When using these personal experiences, I think that adds so much more to a person's writing altogether, too. It becomes believable.
     
  8. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would count that book as autobiographical. Most people who write about their lives changes the names of people they know anyway.
    I don't really put that much personal experience in my writing. Maybe some characters share some of my thoughts and ideas, but I feel that main characters really need to be a part of me, even if they are completely different from me. Once wrote a long short story about my boyfriend and I because we're a little funny, but even that ended up as mostly fiction. I even think I made me a lot worse than I am...
     
  9. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I don't rip exactly from my direct life and only change names, but of course my real-life motivations and struggles will reflect in my writing. The situations my characters face are much different from my own life, but the themes are definitely there.
     
  10. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    I constantly wonder how an author is treated by friends and family he/she'd put in his/her novel. I mean, the readers won't know who had the author thought about when he made this or that character, but the person will. And what if the person didn't like what he saw? What if he didn't want that side of him, or that situation he'd lived with the author to be exposed and imortalized in a book? That'll certaily be treaky.

    My novel has a lot of me, of people I know, of situations I've been through, but nothing is direct or an obvious transcription. I use the themes, sometimes the setting or even a trade of someone's personality, but nothing is a transcription of real life.

    When reading I often don't know much about the author's life, so I don't think it would irk me if he used his friends as characters changing just a letter of their names or anything like that. As long as the story interests me, I don't really care from where the author had caught his ideas.
     
  11. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I knew someone in my workshop whose story was about four women with different dilemmas: guy problems, career issues, unintended pregnancies, marraige challenges etc. The characters were based on her real-life friends. Certain aspects of the situations and personalities were altered to fit the plot better, but they were concretely based on them. For example, one of the characters was weak and clingy, but the author did this for plot reasons: the other three were powerhouse types, so having a more unassertive one made the group more rounded-out and realistic, and it made certain events in the story more believable. Her friends were aware of this and apparently liked being in the story, and were understanding about the writer's artistic liberties used. Having a character based on you can make you feel special, I'd think.
     
  12. Silver_Dragon
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    Silver_Dragon Senior Member

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    I agree with those of you who've said that your personal experience works its way into your writing whether you intend it to or not. I don't usually work specific experiences into my stories, nor do I base characters on individual people, but I think my values and perspective still show in my work.

    I have written some cathartic stories where I took a specific event or problem that I dealt with and used it because I thought it would make a good story. However, I always changed the characters and situation to the point where no one else would recognize that the subject matter had anything to do with me...I have to distance myself that way in order to be interested in the writing even if the story is meant to be cathartic.
     
  13. taylor.kuykendall
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    taylor.kuykendall Member

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    Writing from personal experience is really all that any of us can ever do. We can't really escape writing FROM personal experience. I think if those events closely mirror our writing, there has not been any major violation, nor do I think it is a lesser form of writing. I personally write a lot from hypothetical extensions of my own realities. My fiction is typically a spin on my own reality, i.e. what could have happened, etc. My biggest pet peeve is that often, if I let a real-life person read the story, they can pick themselves out. Then they assume a lot about my thoughts or feelings without considering my motivation was story value...
     
  14. jaywriting
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    jaywriting Member

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    Like many of the other posters, I always base my writing on personal experience. Then I take the plot off in directions that may vary from my own history. The extent to which I diverge from my experienced reality depends on how imaginative I'm feeling and where the most interesting plot devices emerge from.
     
  15. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    Hmm. Well, I've taken an autobiographical writing class, which looked specifically at how one could write about real-life experiences truthfully while not being boring. It was pretty awesome, but because of that class, I draw a firm line between "autobiography" and "fiction."

    I try to give my characters the illusion of being independent from myself. That is, I don't have things happen to the characters solely because they happened to me. Instead, I bring my own knowledge and experience, particularly observations about the world, into the story at large. And I try to use professions for my characters that I know enough about to not get something horribly wrong.

    For example, I might demonstrate that someone is an amazing chef by having her (in one, character-establishing scene) serve one of the few meals I know that are "trade secret" -- that is, unless you know to serve two foods together, you can't duplicate the awesome meal. (There's a spicy shrimp soup that only works if you serve it with white wine, for example. Anyone who tries to get a soup equally spicy at home will use too-hot peppers and drown out the shrimp flavor, so they can't duplicate the effect.) This is knowledge I have that not everyone else does, but I don't consider it "autobiographical" because it's pure knowledge -- something I know, not something that happened to me.

    So my characters won't like chocolate but hate caramel just because I'm that way. They won't have a parent with X disease because my parent had that. They won't enjoy reading Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress just because I'm a fan. They won't know (necessarily) about filk music, or beta rays, or truffle-making, or the role of ATM in reparing DNA double-strand breaks. Not, at least, unless it is something their character needs to know -- say, in their role as a bio researcher, or as part of their singing hobby.

    Instead, they're much more likely to walk through forests similar to those I've visited. Or if the plot calls for it, they might be able to chimney up between two buildings to get to the roof, and I'll be able to describe such things realistically.

    In other words, I don't specifically craft my characters to reflect my own experiences, although I'm sure some unconscious stuff gets in there. But if I can use my knowledge or experience to enhance the story, I won't hesitate. I would much prefer to describe a forest setting realistically, based on my own visits to oak forests or to the giant sequoias or to the Sierra Nevadas or to Yellowstone, than to have a character fall off a waterfall just because that happened to me. But if I have two characters fighting in a boat, and one falls off and goes into a whitewater area, I will describe it as best I can given my limited knowledge of what it might be like.
     
  16. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    In my case, it all strongly depends.

    I am writing one humour story where I am certainly taking the main characters from real life and many parts of the story consist of situations that I experienced with them. Why? Because the characters are so absolutely gorgeous (and, in combination, unbelievably funny) and the things that have happened are so hilarious that not much change is needed. I simply place them all in a fictional setting and adjust some of the parameters.

    Usually, however, I do not embed personal experiences in my stories.
     

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