Have you ever written a character based on your life or experiences? Like most writers, even when I’m writing characters who are no-thing like me, I will still borrow places I’ve been, feelings I’ve had, or things I’ve experienced to build out my characters. But, though I routinely draw from my experience as I write novels and short stories, this doesn’t mean that these stories fully mirror my life or are accurate representations of me.
Can you write a character who is like you but has completely different experiences? You can! Autofiction plays with the idea of truth, which, for an author, can be creatively liberating. In autofiction, significant details, plots, and characters are mod-ified to fit the story and don’t necessarily indicate what actually happened.
I now consider my first novel, Roving Pack, to be autofiction (though that wasn’t a term I knew or used to describe it when I wrote and published it). As I was first conceptualizing and then writing that novel, I wanted to create a book that centered around the worlds of homeless LGBTQ youth—the community I was part of in my late teens—but I didn’t want to write a memoir. Even though I borrowed details from my lived experience, I did not recreate my late teens factually. Instead, I used aspects of my life to create an engaging story that readers could connect with.
After Roving Pack was published, some people who knew me in my late teens recognized aspects of the lives we shared together within the book. Some even went so far as to wonder whether they saw themselves as characters in the novel.
If you are letting your characters borrow from your life, remember that you can pick and choose the most interesting aspects of what happened, or the parts that work best with the story you are trying to write. If you aren’t writing a memoir, your first responsibility is telling a good story, not telling an accurate one.
Write What You Know
One of the most cliché and yet useful pieces of advice that writers get is to “write what you know.” What does that really mean? I believe there is a fundamental difference between writing what you know and writing yourself into your novels. In my perspective, writing what you know means utilizing the cultures you come from, places you’ve lived, and experiences you’ve had—but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you become a character in your novel.
“Write what you know” doesn’t mean that you can only write characters who look and sound like you. Rather, I take it as an invitation to recognize how your individual perspective contributes to the books you write, and to be thoughtful when writing characters who are different than you—especially when it comes to race, ethnicity, class, gender identity or expression, and sexuality.
Self-publishing authors don’t have a publishing team to assist with identifying weaknesses or inaccuracies in a work’s story and character development. This is when sensitivity readers can come into play to review and offer feedback.
Sensitivity readers will be able to pinpoint any kind of unintended harmful inaccuracies, stereotypes, or bias that can happen when we are writing about communities that we are not part of, particularly marginalized communities. #OwnVoices is a hashtag you’ve probably heard of. First used by author Corinne Duyvis, this phrase signifies that an author who is part of a marginalized group is writing about their own experience of that identity or community, as opposed to a privileged person writing a character from a marginalized group from an outsider’s perspective. Again, this doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t ever write a story outside of your personal life experience, but we all need to be mindful and cautious to ensure that our representations aren’t perpetuating stereotypes or bias when we do so.
Consequences of Using Self
When thinking about using any part of your lived experience in your writing, it’s important to reflect honestly about whether you are comfortable with any backlash you might experience. Even if you change details, people may recognize themselves in your work.
Personally, I’m a firm believer in author Anne Lamott’s now-famous saying, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Everything that has happened to you is your story to tell, but it’s important to recognize that telling those stories can have consequences.
Are you prepared for people to be upset about what you wrote? I don’t have a relationship with the family that raised me, which has made the decision to use those experiences in writing easy: I don’t have to be concerned with how people will respond. But if you are writing about your relationships with people you are close to, that’s something to keep in mind.
Is That Character You?
Something I’ve found over the last decade of publishing is that, regardless of your intentions, some readers will assume that a character is you, or based directly on your lived experience. With my second novel, Lost Boi (an LGBTQ, punk retelling of Peter Pan), most readers were convinced that the character of Wendi was based on me. In reality, none of the characters in the book are based on my lived experience, but the one who most borrows from my life and perspective isn’t the Wendi character!
At the end of the day, once our books are written and published, they no longer belong to us. What I mean by that is, as authors, we can’t control the relationship that our readers are going to have with our work and the assumptions that they are going to make. The only things we have control over are what parts of our lived experience we give to our characters and how and whether we choose to talk about which parts of our life we used.
Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.
A version of this article appeared in the 07/12/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Putting the Self in Self-Publishing