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Drawing from Real Life in Fiction

Looking back at our own livesUnlike many people I know, I’ve never wanted to write the story of my life. And I’ve come to belatedly believe that this lack of autobiographic desire on my part has affected my fiction writing, and not necessarily for the best.

I say “belatedly” because I’ve been writing fiction for close to 15 years, but only a few years ago did I start to readjust what I now see as a rather closed and negative mindset I’d been maintaining.

In the past, I used to consciously avoid drawing on my own life and experiences when writing fiction. I’ll admit that I probably got a bit snobby about it, making blithe statements like “I prefer to write about lives far more interesting than my own,” and looking down my nose at authors who wrote what I considered to be thinly veiled memoir, but who positioned their work as fiction. Frankly, I thought they were being both lazy and self-absorbed in doing so. I’ve since reevaluated that stance.

So what has changed? Well, despite being an opinionated bastard, I do pride myself on actually listening to others, particularly those who are further along in their literary journeys. So I pay attention to the advice and insights of successful authors, and I make an attempt to try their advice on for size before dismissing it. To that end, today I’d like to share some insights I gained from two very different writers: WU’s own Barbara O’Neal, and the author of the Jack Reacher series, Lee Child.

A wise woman weighs in on the stories we each own

Back in 2011, I was fortunate enough to see Barbara O’Neal presenting at the RWA Women’s Fiction Conference (back when the RWA still acknowledged women’s fiction as a valid category, but don’t get me started on that sore subject). At the time, Barbara was serving as the “Wise Woman” for the Women’s Fiction chapter, a title she more than deserved. The entire conference was terrific, but I think I got the biggest personal takeaway from Barbara’ segment, where she made this simple but powerful statement:

“We’re all stuck with our own stories.”

She went on to explain, in a manner that I’ll try to paraphrase as best I can. To clarify, Barbara wasn’t telling us that we needed to base the plots of our novels and stories on our actual personal lives. Instead, she was suggesting that if we focused our writing on exploring the ideas and feelings that meant the most to us, the result would be that our stories would be imbued with a correspondingly deep level of emotional intensity and personal conviction.

And by saying that we were “stuck with” these stories, her point was that we should accept and embrace the experiences and beliefs that form the essence of our personalities, and use them to drive our stories. Barbara maintained that doing so would inherently make those stories more resonant with readers, particularly with those who’d had similar experiences.

For me, this was one of those “scales falling from my eyes” moments (which, I’m realizing, sounds incredibly gross if you’re not familiar with the reference). I realized that in my own fiction, I’d spent a lot of time and energy focusing on being funny or clever, but it wasn’t until I really dug deeper emotionally and explored some areas that hit very close to home that I actually succeeded in selling a book. Writing that book had taken me to some very emotional places, touching on nerves that had been scraped raw by some recent personal experiences. But that painful and challenging journey had also produced my most compelling fiction to date. Hmmmm, maybe there was something to this “looking inside yourself” stuff after all.

[pullquote]If you let your writing reflect your world view, your passion, your issues and your sore spots, the result will carry an emotional truth and gravitas that will be undeniable.[/pullquote]

In retrospect, I began to see how much of my past and my personality was woven into my debut novel, and I realized I needed to recant my blithe dismissal of using one’s own life for source material. So I’d like to publicly thank Barbara for capturing this concept so clearly and succinctly, and in the interest of passing it forward, I’ll echo her advice to other writers. If you let your writing reflect your world view, your passion, your issues and your sore spots – whatever they may be – the result will carry an emotional truth and gravitas that will be undeniable.

And now for something completely different. Or is it?

Next I want to look at an author who seemingly couldn’t be more different from Barbara. But on further examination, you might start to believe that he has simply found his own way to explore the stories he’s “stuck with.”

A big man reveals his not-so-small similarity to his protagonist

The protagonist of Lee Child’s series of novels is Jack Reacher, a badass character who is basically Superman without the cape, tights, and sense of obligation to follow society’s laws. I’ve read a few of Child’s novels, and while I enjoyed their taut pacing and impressive action sequences, there were times I found the Reacher character a little too bullet-proof and invincible. I softened that opinion after reading this interview with Lee Child [1], a three-part series that I highly recommend even to those who are not fans of Child’s work, or of his genre.

In discussing the success of this character, Child openly states, “I think it comes down to wish fulfillment, pure and simple.” While this seemed pretty obvious to me, the more I learned about Child, the more I realized where his character had come from. It quickly became clear that the Reacher character was not simply a larger-than-life fantasy; he was deeply rooted in the author’s past – particularly in his physicality. I was surprised to learn that Child stands 6′ 4″ tall, much like his 6′ 5″ protagonist Jack Reacher (we will ignore for the moment the diminutive Tom Cruise’s hotly contested portrayal of Jack Reacher in the 2012 film of the same name). Here is Child’s description of the impact of his physical size during his childhood on the mean streets of Birmingham, England:

“It was a rough, tough place. There was no solution to anything except instinctive violence. Whatever your dispute with another guy was, it would be settled by violence. We didn’t have guns or anything like that, but we had knives, and we had bicycle chains, and all that kind of stuff.

But to me, it was not all that rough, because by some genetic accident, I was enormous – I was huge as a kid. I really have not grown very much since I was ten or eleven; I was a giant, a freak. And in a sense, that’s where Reacher comes from, because I was, as a kid, physically unchallengeable. I try to give that same feeling to Reacher.”

Child goes on to say, “I wanted to convey the feeling that this is a guy who can turn any corner anywhere in the world, and whatever lies in front of him, it would be an amazing coincidence to come across anybody as tough as him, or tougher. He breezes through life pretty much certain that he’ll never be physically vulnerable . . . And that was me at the age of nine.”

The bottom line is that Child has created a character with an abundance of confidence because he himself has a lot of confidence – it’s not an act or a fantasy. And that confidence is a trait that was forged within him as a boy, some 50 years ago. Having learned this about the author, I now see an additional depth to his protagonist, which used to be obscured by my cynicism (and let’s face it, envy) of his physical superiority. (I have also since determined that I will never try to kick Lee Child’s ass – I suspect that would not work out well for me.)

Again, I urge interested readers to take the time to read this interview, not only for the connection between the author’s past and his characters. Child openly challenges some widely accepted writing rules, such as the need for the protagonist to transform and/or evolve in every story. Child assesses his own work candidly, noting that “My books are straightforward, old-fashioned adventures where there is a clear-cut, binary choice: You are either with the hero or against him, and that determines your fate. And Jack Reacher will never lose, and he will never be gray in any way.”

In adopting this approach, Child clearly and consistently sets the expectations of his readers, and then meets them – book after book, for millions and millions of readers. To me, there’s something to be learned from this, no matter what genre of fiction you may write.

The power of looking within

While neither Child’s writing nor his advice may sound very similar to Barbara’s, I still see some connections between their approaches. In both instances, these gifted authors have discovered and explored the power of pulling from their most formative experiences and beliefs. And in both instances, the results are books that people love to read.

Sounds like a solid game plan to me.

How about you?

How have you used your own experiences and/or beliefs to enhance your storytelling? How much of the truth do you tell? And where is the dividing line between fiction and memoir? I look forward to hearing from you, and as always, thanks for reading!


Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

About Keith Cronin [2]

Author of the novels ME AGAIN [3], published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY [4] (published under his pen name Nick Rollins [5]), Keith Cronin [6] is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.