Writing Fictitious Autobiographies
The term I’m using here might be a misnomer. It might even be new. I’m sure the subject matter isn’t new, but I did some research for this article and had a hard time finding a label for what I wanted to discuss. First, let’s clear up a few common terms so we know what they mean.
Autobiography: a recounting of one’s own life.
Autobiographical novel: a recounting of one’s own life in the form of a novel, often with fictionalized or dramatized elements.
Semi-autobiographical novel: the same as above, but further removed from fact and relying more on fictional and dramatic elements.
Fictitious biography: a novel about another person’s life, either an almost entirely fictitious account of a real person or a biography of a fictional person.
There, that gets us closer to what I’m trying to discuss. I’m considering this to define a novel wherein a fictional character looks back on their own life and tells their story. It’s not truly autobiographical because it’s not the author’s story, but in the scope of the novel it is presented that the fictional character is the author of the story within the novel the author is writing. Taking that and extrapolating from the above definitions, I settled on fictitious autobiography for what I wanted to examine.
That’s something I did in What Once Was Home, and it changed the entire feel of the book. This post-apocalyptic science fiction novel tells the story of a young man named Jace surviving an alien invasion, and later going on to be a leader-figure as his community rebuilds some years later. Here’s the moment that tells the reader that Jace is writing the story, these are the first lines of the prologue.
Jace Cox looked down at his hands as they rested on the keyboard of the old computer. His knuckles were swollen and covered in scars. He could read his own past in those lines, like a road map through time.
Once we have established to our reader what our goal is, how do we structure things? There’s quite a few ways you could pull it off. You could start every chapter with the older version of the character writing a passage in their autobiography, then transition into the subject matter they are writing. You could simply include a prologue where the main character is working on their autobiography, then tell the story from chapter one. You could also have breaks within the chapters, where scenes are separated by passages from the autobiography.
From the start, I prefaced each chapter with an entry from Jace’s own autobiography:
I realized when we got to Hatcher’s Creek that I still didn’t know what a real battle was like. That day back home had just been the first skirmish in a series of many. The battle of Hatcher’s Creek was my real baptism by fire. I think we all came out of that with a new perspective on life, and I know we all left something there that night.
—From Rediscovering Home: The Autobiography of Jace Cox
Each entry reflected on what was about to happen in the chapter, rather than on what had come before. There was a real challenge not spoiling anything. We know from the example above that there’s going to be a battle, but the real fun was in seeing how that played out. And so far, others are sharing my opinion on that:
These segments help to fuel a burning desire to learn how the plot points of the chapter play out, opposed to the norm of wondering what each plot point of a chapter will be. In this sense, the segments and the chapter titles work in unison to fuel this desire to know how rather than to know what.
— Stewart Storrar of Lore Publication, reviewing What Once Was Home
The other method I used was including a prologue. Now, prologues can be a tricky thing. That subject deserves a whole article, but here’s the short version. The prologue of a book should establish expectations for elements that will be appearing later in a book. In a fictitious autobiography, we can use it to shift to a time after the end of the story and hint at what kind of developments will take place over the course of the narrative.
Let’s take a short look at part of the first chapter of What Once Was Home:
He always thought it odd that they called it the square, but the road formed a roundabout here. At one end stood the town hall; a compact collection of municipal offices, a police station, and a courthouse. They were all tucked neatly into a colonial-style brick building complete with marble columns supporting a grand portico. Around it were little shops and cafes, and at the other end a small library. All the buildings were red brick, most of them as old as the town itself. Lewisburg had been there for well over a hundred years, most likely founded by somebody named Lewis, and had probably not changed all that much since then.
In this excerpt, we get the idea of a sleepy little town that never changes. We basically get a short tour of the town as a fourteen-year-old Jace rides his skateboard through it. Still, it’s all rather pedestrian. Where’s the excitement? Where’s the tension? We know some is coming later, but what if we could build tension here without changing a single word?
Enter, the prologue:
Stalks of corn waved in the breeze, standing tall in the middle of what used to be an old park in the center of town. Some of the townsfolk were already picking cobs from the stalks, piling them up in baskets on their arms. Jace’s mouth watered at the idea of fresh corn, one of his favorite things about the season. He stepped down onto the road and made his way around the square, smiling and nodding as he passed by faces both familiar and new. A pair of horses whinnied as they trotted by, the bed of an old pickup truck harnessed behind them full of grain brought to town by one of the local traders.
Here we learn a lot about the world after the story. As a sixty-five-year-old Jace walks through town, we get a different sort of tour that tells us that this town has been through some rough times.
Now, look back at the excerpt from the first chapter. We still see that sleepy old town, but now there’s tension because we know what kind of changes it will endure. And, when Jace considers how the town never changes, the reader has a moment where they can say, “Just wait!”
What about the epilogue? The prologue sets the stage for what’s going to happen over the course of the narrative, and the epilogue gives us a chance to reflect on all that. Here’s the opening lines of the epilogue, picking up the same scene from the prologue:
Jace looked down from the corn waving in the morning breeze and looked at his hands again. His eyes traced along the scars of the past and the wrinkles of time. Those lines told so many stories. He could still remember where some of them came from.
We can see Jace is reflecting here. The scene is the same, but the mood changes. It returns us to a sense of something familiar, because we know this is where we started. There’s a lot more reflection and emotional depth to this epilogue, and even a few reveals and “where are they now” moments, but you’ll just have to read the book to see it all!
So, we can see that in writing a fictitious autobiography, there’s a few ways to go about it. These examples are just to show how I did it. The novel itself wouldn’t have this feel if it was just taken with the chapters on their own. By adding the prologue and epilogue, we get to see Jace writing his autobiography and reflecting on life. We get to add tension by hinting at what’s to come with the autobiographical entries. We also get to delve deeper into Jace’s own thoughts and feelings without interrupting the narrative itself. Instead of a story about Jace, the novel really becomes Jace’s story.