In this article two primary aspects will be considered: Why the genre of ‘Biographical Fiction’ exists and How to go about structuring a manuscript for this genre.
To set the matter in context: By very definition the content of autobiographical, biographical and memoir books must be entirely truthful and based upon real people, events and facts. For them to be otherwise would be misleading and unfair to readers. The fact a reader selected a book in one of these genre is indicative of their desire to read about real people and true life events: they are not looking for a fictional tale.
It may also help to clarify terminology: Whether agreed with or not, it must be accepted, in today’s society, many utilise the term ‘memoir’ to include autobiography and biography as well as memoir. The differences?
Autobiography: Where the author is telling their Own life story.
Biography: Where someone recounts the life story of another person.
Memoir: The author records one event or a series of connected occurrences from their life but not their complete life story (their autobiography).
As stated, even if some would prefer the correct identifying term be utilised, it is necessary to acknowledge common usage and to accept a ‘Memoir’ may contain any or all of the above elements.
Why Biographical Fiction?
Biographical Fiction is not a new concept though, in the past, such books were commonly identified as fiction. Take Charles Dickens’s book David Copperfield, considered a ‘classic’ in the world of literature. It is well known parts are based upon his own family and experiences: The character of Mr Micawber is modelled upon his own father; and can anyone miss the similarities between David Copperfield’s struggles to become a successful author and Dickens’s own? This is certainly not the only example to be found in literature. Many established authors have drawn upon and included their own and other ‘real’ people’s experiences to create realistic and meaningful characters and situations.
With the description of ‘Biographical Fiction’ there can be no mistaking intent. Any reader selecting a book from this genre will be looking for an entertaining read that has elements of truth in it or, at least, is partly based upon fact. The term itself should avoid any misunderstanding as to the style of a book’s content.
Why authors chose to write Biographical Fiction
There may be any number of reasons an author will opt for this alternative to that of memoir etc. It may be because:
- They are unable to recall all the facts accurately. (Time can blur remembrances.)
- They are unable to fully determine the accuracy or truth of some person, event or occasion. (Principally when writing about someone else.)
- They consider the truth alone would not make for an interesting or entertaining read.
- They wish to conceal some facts and/or identities. (For privacy or to protect those mentioned from public exposure.)
The reasons can be as varied and as unique as the authors themselves. No doubt other possibilities will readily come to the reader’s mind.
Structuring Biographical Fiction
As implied in the name, a biographical fiction book must be based upon, and have its foundations in, real people and true events. Of course, that is not to say there may not be additional fictional characters and occurrences included but, overall, the tale must be rooted in reality.
An author check list:
- Decide which lives and events to write about.
- Will it be a full epic or just one or two events.
- Which format will best suit the tale: novel, novelette or short story.
- Decide exactly what to include and, more importantly, what not to include.
- Plot where to start and where to end.
- Decide upon chronology: whether it will be linear or not. (E.g. will throwbacks be utilised?)
- Research all facts and aspects where not personally known or if in the least bit unsure.
Plot has been mentioned in point 5. In general the normal story structure should be followed: beginning-middle-end. If suitable, it is suggested the author starts and ends with something that is based upon fact rather than fiction. After all most experiences, if they are worth the telling, have the tendency to be dramatic in there own right and it is primarily these that should be drawn out.
It is suggested, before commencing the book proper, the author creates a rough plot point outline utilising the true events first. Subsequently, fictional plot point elements may then be inserted. Thereafter, the author may give full rein to their creative muse and ability.
Unless a non-fiction, authors should bare in mind books are generally seen as a means of entertainment. Story telling has been part of every society and culture since time began and have always been seen as something to be enjoyed. Consequently, authors need to ensure their book has at least some element of entertainment. Books are also seen as a means of distraction from the rudimentary toils and tasks of everyday life: most readers will not want to read about dull, mundane lives that are similar to their own. They want to be inspired and to know hope exists and is not always disappointed. Biographical fiction, well come to that autobiography, biography and memoir, are no different. The reader may have a genuine interest in the subject matter but will, at the same time, either consciously or subconsciously, be looking for some form of escapism. This is perhaps just one of the elements where the biographical fiction author has the advantage.
Concern regarding the use of real names (people and locations) and of actual identifiable historic events in books frequently arises. The principle worry regards the possibility of being sued for Defamation of Character (incorporates Slander and Libel); Invasion of Privacy or Malice. Naturally, it is primarily authors of autobiography, biography and memoir who deliberate the issue. However, the situation is no different with biographical fiction, or in fact with any book. Of course, author’s, if their characters are to be realistic, will undoubtedly base descriptions, mannerisms, habits, idiosyncrasies, etc. upon observations of ‘real’ people. However, to avoid any possibility of causing offence or raising the possibility of litigation, these must not be such as to make an actual person identifiable. How would the author feel if it was them being described? The best way to achieve this is to utilise a variety of characteristics from different people to create a given fictional character.
Names in Memoirs includes more detailed information upon the topic of litigation.
When first setting out on a project it is easy for an author to get carried away: who does not dream of having a best selling novel. However, sometimes a short story or novelette may be more appropriate. With biographical fiction the author is free to let their imagination run wild with little constraint except, of course, to ensure the factual parts are accurate. Though this can be, and usually is, fun, the story needs to be believable and within the bounds of the event(s) the author is attempting to portray. In addition, as already mentioned, the author should not forget the normal principles (some would say rules though that is considered too constraining) in formatting a tale: beginning-middle-end.
Biographical fiction is a free form, fun way (for both author and reader) to relate true events and facts within a fictitious framework.
It is important actual true occurrences, no matter how extensive or limited, are faithfully conveyed.
Descriptions of people and locations should be carefully considered so as not to cause or result in: upset, embarrassment, a breach of privacy or undue public exposure or to open the potential for litigation.
The correct format should also be carefully considered: Novel; Novelette; Short Story; Essay and the author should ensure the fictitious content complements (gels) with the facts.
Biographical fiction is not only fun but also has the advantage of opening stories to a broader readership: Real/True life enthusiasts and those who simply enjoy a good tale.