Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Mechanics of Writing: Autobiography or Fiction?

In every author's fiction, eventually one asks the question: how much of this is "true" and how much is "made up?"

Stephen King, for example, sets the majority of his books in small-town Maine, where he grew up and has lived most of his life.  When he set "The Shining" in a Colorado resort hotel, he was living in Colorado at the time.  Many of his protagonists (Stuttering Bill from "It," Paul Sheldon from "Misery," Michael Noonan from "Bag of Bones," as well as the lead characters in "Salem's Lot," "The Shining," and "The Body," to name a few) are writers.  It would be foolish to assume that there was not at least an element of autobiography present in his works.

John Irving's characters almost always attend an exclusive New England private school, as he did.  Sometimes the actual school, Exeter, is used, sometimes not.  Irving himself has said this is autobiographical; he writes the school experience for his characters that he is familiar with.

Jane Austen was inspired to write "Pride and Prejudice" after her own unlucky foray into the world of matrimony.  Jane had a Charles Bingley in her own life, whose family objected to his wedding a girl of no important family and no dowry, but there was no Mr. Darcy to set things right.  In "Pride and Prejudice," one can imagine that Elizabeth Bennet is, perhaps, the girl Jane Austen wanted to be, and Mr. Darcy the man she wished her would-be husband had been.  (Interestingly, her own family contained a Lydia-like scandal; her brother ran off and lived with a married woman much older than himself.)

I imagine in any work of fiction, there are autobiographical traits one can find if that is what one wants to do.  As a writer, the question I am always trying to answer is, "Am I writing what is truly happening for the character, or what I want to happen?"  In other words, authors who use fiction as wish-fulfillment had better do a very good job (as Jane Austen did) to avoid their stories becoming trite bits of fluff.

I recently completed (maybe) a short novel (about 50,000 words) that I'm terribly afraid will come off as wish-fulfillment.  It's about a 35-year-old woman (professional singer) who has an emotional affair with a 24-year-old man (scruffy yet attractive composer).  Conflict and murder ensue.  I have absolutely no real desire for any man, of any age, other than my husband, but you can see my dilemma.  If, perchance, someone was to read this book, I don't ever want them walking away from it saying, "Wow, that lady really wants to have an affair with a 24-year-old man."

I think I have a good imagination.  I can imagine what it would feel like, for example, to be beaten up, although it's never happened to me.  I can imagine what it would be like to have abusive parents (as my main character in my first novel did) even though I didn't.  I could imagine what it felt like to be a vampire, even though, to my knowledge, I don't subsist on the blood of my enemies.  Still, in this age of complete personal transparency, the first assumption about fiction seems to be that it must be rooted, somehow, in fact.  It's a hard call to make, sometimes, when I'm trying to figure out what a character is doing next.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is to say, "What would I do in this situation?"

Then, make sure the character does anything but that!


Kristina P. said...

Interesting! As a non-writer, I don't know how I would do with character development.

Boy Mom said...

I would never suspect that you wanted to have an emotional affair with a 24 year old(scruffy yet attractive Rob Patt...composer). Certainly none of us readers have ever entertained such an idea.

I agree with the wish-fulfillment stories becoming trite bits of fluff. That doesn't stop me from loving them.

I still would love to finish reading your vampire story.