Deciding whether to write a memoir or a novel can sometimes be complicated. Some writers even try to avoid making a choice by writing what they call “autofiction,” a blend of memoir and fiction. In an article in Publisher’s Weekly, “Autofiction: What It Is and What It Isn’t,” author and fellow book coach Brooke Warner explains that a story is “‘either memoir or its fiction. There’s no such category as autofiction.’” While it can be tempting to try to straddle that line, as Rush (and philosopher René Descartes) said, “When you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” And when it comes to writing your story, not deciding between memoir and fiction is a big mistake.
There are certainly many good and valid reasons to write your story as memoir, not the least of which is that your story is meant to be memoir. If your story lends itself best to memoir, and if memoir is what you want to write, then that’s what you should write. Memoir has elements of fiction, but it is an entirely different and uniquely beautiful art form.
But here, for those who are on the fence, I want to talk about some of the benefits of fictionalizing your true story.
1. The freedom to expand and extrapolate. Writing fiction means fewer constraints on your imagination. You can take the story further than it went in real life. You can go outside the story proper and examine external forces and events that shaped the story. You can get inside of the heads and the lives of multiple characters—unfortunately, in real life, you can only be inside your own head. You can make things larger than life. Your story doesn’t have to take place in your hometown—it could take place in a world 3,000 lightyears away. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a twenty-first century paralegal—she can be a warrior in a futuristic dystopia. You can deeply examine the characters’ motives and feelings and outcomes. Okay, you can do that last bit in memoir, too, but not in the same way you can in fiction, where nothing is really off limits. All said, writing fiction frees you up to use your imagination in a way writing memoir doesn’t.
2. Fictionalizing a story allows you to spice things up. Real life isn’t always as exciting or as funny or as enthralling as a novel or a movie. Maybe your story has the germ of an interesting idea or a unique twist, but if you tell it exactly as it happened, it might not be all that engaging for a reader. In fact, it might be downright boring. But when you fictionalize it, you can use your imagination to fill in the gaps, develop a thrilling plot and colorful characters, and draw the reader in. The two weird double dates I went on when I was seventeen and nineteen make boring stories. The only thing interesting about them is who I doubled with: the first time, I doubled with my mom, and the second time, it was my aunt—she had a date with country singer Sonny James, but he’d asked her to find a date for one of his guitarists. Both “dates” were age appropriate, completely uneventful, and, to be honest, boring. (Sorry, Sonny’s guitarist.) I’d have much rather been out with my friends. But in a short story I wrote, a girl is fixed up with a middle-aged creep by her social-climbing mother, and things happen much differently. I took that little germ of something that actually happened in my life and turned it into a completely fictionalized (and much less boring) story.
3. The chance to see events from a different perspective. I once wrote a short story inspired by what I thought was a laughable and embarrassing family gathering. I had an ending in mind, but as often happens once you get deep into the writing, the story took on a life of its own. The ending wrote itself, and it allowed me see the family gathering from the perspective of my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, and my cousins. As I wrote the ending, which I had intended to be funny, I found myself crying at the sweetness of my family coming together in a way only my family could. Fictionalizing a true story can allow you to see the story from the characters’ perspectives, and you may come out of the experience with a new or deeper understanding of something you thought you already had all figured out.
4. The chance to see yourself from a different perspective. That same story about what I once considered a mortifying white trash family gathering also allowed me to see myself from another angle—from the perspectives of my family members and perhaps even outsiders. Let’s just say the character I’d based on myself didn’t come off looking so great. During the writing of my story, I confronted some things about myself, and in particular I was forced to examine the reasons behind my lifelong struggle to distance myself from my family’s background. I came out of it with a deeper appreciation of family, and afterward, I forged deeper, more meaningful, and more loving connections with members of my extended family.
5. The opportunity to imagine a different outcome. All of us have regrets. We wonder what would have happened if things had gone in another direction, if we’d taken a different fork in the road, or if we hadn’t done something. In my own life, I sometimes wonder what my life would be like today if I hadn’t answered the telephone one long-ago, rainy, February night before caller ID existed. A friend shared with me that she likes to write about characters who do things she would never do, to imagine what that would be like. In Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, the protagonist, Nora, is offered the opportunity to experience different lives resulting from different choices. Fictionalizing a true story is your chance to take the “what ifs” in your life, imagine a different outcome, and turn it all into an incredible story.
6. A novel is generally easier to sell than a memoir. Memoirs by writers who aren’t celebrities or who don’t have a substantial platform are notoriously difficult to sell to publishers, which in turn makes it more difficult to get an agent to represent you and your book. That’s not to say it’s impossible—memoirs by unknown writers sell every day, especially when the writer’s story is unique or timely. If your story is definitely a memoir, stay true to your story, and don’t try to turn it into something it’s not. But if it’s not necessary to the story or to your vision for the story for it to be told in memoir form, or if you don’t necessarily want to put the details of your private life out there in memoir form, consider whether your story might make a great novel.
Caveat: Another benefit of fictionalizing a true story is that you can avoid hurting or exposing innocent or even not-so-innocent parties who were involved. But, the downside of fictionalizing a true story is that, without proper legal advice, you might be exposed to legal problems.
New York attorney Lloyd J. Jassin, the author of The Copyright Permission & Libel Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers, recently wrote about this in depth in his article “The Legal Consequences of Using Real People in Fiction.” Jassin offers some super helpful suggestions to avoid legal issues. He explains that merely changing a person’s name and turning them into a fictional character might not protect a writer from a libel suit, especially if the writer has not-so-nice things to say about the “character.” Even if those not-so-nice things are true, the writer could be found liable for violating the person’s right to privacy. In some cases, a writer could even be found liable if the person suing isn’t the person they based their character on!
“If you conflate fact with fiction, give some thought to the words you stuff into your character’s mouth,” Jassin writes. “If you don’t, it’s not hard to imagine your character’s real life double doing something dreadful. While the First Amendment may be the patron saint of thinly veiled fiction, it can’t stop a punch in the nose.”
Jassin’s bottom-line advice? “If you feel uncomfortable with the legal minefield of libel, right of privacy and right of publicity law, consult a publishing attorney. A publishing attorney can evaluate or vet your manuscript, and suggest ways to mitigate or avoid many of [the] risks of writing about real people and actual events. Expect to pay a publishing attorney what you’d pay a good book doctor. As they say, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’”