I had in mind to use threads from my own life as a foundation for work, keeping much of the incidents, traits and all, but building upon them in a potentially different direction. What are the pitfalls?

I couldn't find a similar question on the site, so I decided to ask.

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When writers base fiction too closely on their own experiences, they can sometimes lose the ability to truly play with the story. I think this is because they are not consciously making as many decisions as a writer of "pure" fiction. They can be tempted to simply record what happened in real life (and to skip inventing material to fill in the gaps of their own knowledge about other people's motivations or bits of the experience that they didn't notice), instead of pondering how to best tell a good story. I've known writers whose story details should have been changed or expanded to better support their theme or create atmosphere, but who resisted the suggestion that they do so because "this is how it really happened."

Writing from life CAN limit your mental ability or willingness to be flexible with your story, and to shape the details in order to support your overall theme.

However, nothing is so convincing in fiction as material that the author truly knows. The ring of authenticity is valuable and definitely worth the pitfalls of writing from life.

  • In case you did not know, you can use double asterisks for strong emphasis (bold); SHOUTING is not necessary. (This may just be my own pet peeve.)
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    Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 1:40
  • Funnily enough, I don't use caps except for CAN-- for some reason they appeal to me there. My own quirk! :-)
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  • 'CAN' is sort of like holding on to someone's shoulders and shaking them like a martini. Has that effect :-D Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:21
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Most writers utilize elements of their own experience when they create their fiction. Some of the best fiction depends heavily on the writer's own life. John Irving is an excellent example of a highly successful and respected writer who creates much of his fiction out of modifications of his own life. John Grisham, a lawyer, writes about lawyers. Dashiell Hammett, a detective, wrote about detectives. Robin Cook, a doctor, writes about doctors. Examples abound.

Even when creating stories that seem to have little to do with one's own life, or even one's own world, most writers almost inevitably incorporate something of their own experience. At a minimum, what we have learned as human beings informs our writing even when we're writing about robots battling dinosaurs in another galaxy.

For me, it goes back to the basic dictum: *Write what you know." Truer words were never spoken. So don't hesitate to use as much of your own life as you want. Just remember to make good choices about which "real" elements advance the story, and be creative about modifying the reality to make the story work.


Considering that many of those threads from your life probably also involved other people, another pitfall is that someone else might recognize himself in your book and not like what you write about "him". If he's too recognizable, it might even get you in legal trouble.


The pitfall is that somebody who knows you and is aware of things about you may get a deeper insight about you, which can be good or bad. If done right, on the other hand, it will only make the text richer.

A book I just wrote has a lot of real life experiences that happened to me, friends or acquaintances. In fact, it's a must for me to use interesting characters and events that I live or get to know from somebody else because I really believe it makes the text much more believable... or not, because some of the real life stories I use are hard to believe. All in all, I think the final result was just great, at least from my paternal writer point of view.

I guess the key point here is to draw a line. The book can't be about you, assuming it's fiction, and it's easy to lose track. I wouldn't like at all to hear somebody saying my book was autobiographical, because it is not. It just has some of my experiences. The Cohen Brothers are famous for doing exactly the same thing in their movies.

My advice is, use all the good and bad experiences you think might fit and make them fit your characters, not you.


The main pitfall is libel, in case your story clearly maps to an individual. If I wrote a story in first-person, used the real name of my college, then cast the a supporting character as "my closest friend," who "was an electrical-engineering major," then went on to describe something "we did" that could potentially harm his career... I can be sued. Even if the story is presumed to be fiction. If the story is in fact true to the letter, then by labeling it "fiction" we've violated a fundamental media ethic, which is to label all content truthfully and accurately and to keep different types of content visually separate. The worse violations I see are ads posing as reviews and opinion posing as news, but I digress....(ever clicked on a link or a download mirror that was a trick to peel an ad-click out of you? Did you trust the site afterward?)

Some of my favorite writers based nearly ALL of their work on personal experience. Hemingway simply tapped out as many words as he could about his adventures, some exaggerated, some not. Since he was THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY, most of his "typing" ended up in periodicals, collected into volumes and published as books.

On a less abstract side, F. Scott Fitzgerald used an extremely popular technique that (for me) is the only way I can write "honest, authentic" fiction. The main character in his stories is HIM - albeit a fictionalized version of him. The other characters are based on people he KNEW.

Woody Allen is another example, in nearly all his plays and scripts, the main character is a lightly fictionalized version of himself, in his movies he plays the main character for this exact reason to great effect.

I find more pitfalls in writing 100 percent fictional characters. How can there be any authentic dialogue or action with someone who isn't even BASED on ANYONE or ANYTHING KNOWN to the writer? Perhaps some have better imaginations than me.

The important thing is that if the character IS essentially your best-friend from college, then change the college, the character's name, the location...as much as you need so if/when you tell a libelous anecdote within the story, it's essentially untraceable. Minimization of harm is the key concept & ethic. A good college story isn't going to be about going to class on time, getting good grades, studying and staying sober. Ideally, we'd like our friend's boss and his wife to think that is all he did in school. The 18 year old version of a character is going to be vastly different from his 40 year old self. That goes triple for self-based characters. Ask the teenage me, the mid-20s me and ME (the real me) the same question and you are likely to get vastly different answers. Consider their differences, strengths and foibles when you set a fictional character's age that is based in reality (on some level).

"Art (naturally) reflects life," I think most fiction writers base characters and relationships on real ones whether they know it or not. The important thing is re-name, re-stage and change the time period or ages of the characters.

Carrying the "This piece is a work of fiction. Any resemblance ..." statement is always good, especially if a character is CLEARLY an ex, or an old boss or ... you get the idea.

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