Lord knows I’ve attempted it countless times – trying to turn various dramatic parts of my life into awesome fiction. And I’ve failed. A lot.
So why am I preaching on something I’ve only ever failed at? Because I’ve learned from my mistakes. I now know what I was doing wrong, and if I can help you succeed by informing you on what to avoid when you set out to write your life on the page, you can make your life’s journeys into better fiction than mine.
First things first, the number one mistake I’d made during my attempts was trying to stick to what happened in real life within the plot of the story. Now, I don’t know if you realize this, but real life events don’t have all the elements of fiction. It just doesn’t work like that, at least not usually. You, the author, have to put your creativity to good use here – discover and explore the depths of the events that took place, and either extract and shape or generate and develop, the remaining, missing elements of a strong plot. The “depths,” by the way, include a study of implications, aftermath, and the situations/events that led up to significant moments.
The key to writing fiction is to let it evolve into what it’s trying to become and what it’s meant to be. I wasn’t doing that because, for whatever reason, I wanted to stick to the truth, not to the point. I didn’t let my memories inspire my work as much as confine it, and that constantly ruined my story’s chances of progression and growth into something powerful and universally resonant.
Don’t let reality confine your fiction, capisce? Let the inspiration create the spark of passion for a project, and let the fiction be the flames that flourish and grow to new lengths on their own. When you confine your fiction to the structure of reality, you’re not only limiting the story’s possibilities, but also ensuring that it will be lacking the mastery of a skilled writer.
No matter how dramatic or cinematic parts of your reality may be, do not restrain the growth and development of the story that comes out of it in order to maintain the integrity of real events – reality doesn’t matter in fiction. Fiction is not real; it’s just realistic. Take what matters—some key characters, their desires and struggles, and the point of their journey through the plot—and build the plot from there.
Number two, work on translating real emotions and lessons into creative, structured, and dramatic scenes. Dig deeper into the events you want to transcribe into your fiction. What do your actions during that time of your life say about you or the person you’re basing the story on? What was the hidden meaning or significance of those actions? What do you know now about the antagonist in your reality/story that you didn’t then? How can you reveal both sides of the story through a series of actions in the fiction piece?
You’ll have to be your own therapist and psychoanalyst for some time and figure yourself and others out on a level that goes beyond the surface. It can be very hard if you’re subconsciously closed-minded, like I used to be, but it’s necessary. (And if it hurts too much, focus on exploring the depth of your characters in lieu of the real people behind them.) When you dig deeper, the characters’ internal desires and struggles will become evident, and you’ll better understand, based on the protagonist’s hidden, internal goals and struggles in context to the events of your story, what the theme of the fiction is meant to be.
Number three, let the characters that inspired the work be inherently the same in your fiction as they are in real life, but don’t go out of your way to speak to or (dis)honor them in the writing. I’ve gone off track many a time dwelling on what that guy I was writing about would think of how he is portrayed in my writing. It’s silly, really, but I felt crippled by my perception of others’ non-existent opinions.
It’s best to remember that you have a powerful weapon called fiction that you are effectively shielded by. Summon your creativity, and mask reality in fiction; use the defining characteristics, the ones that serve the story the most, of real people to shape characters, rather than blatantly referring to those in your life and causing tension for yourself and embarrassment for others. This may be a true test of your creativity and imagination, but if practiced and learned, the method can be of endless benefit to your peace of mind and writing.
Upon taking those three steps to approaching reality-based fiction in the right state of mind, I was able to restart work on two different novels that have been put aside due to fear of approaching the subject(s) of the work. This time, though, I have my story and characters all worked out, and they tribute experiences in an appreciative light rather than recount failures and put down people. This time, I know both sides of the story, and I’m ready to offer something valuable to its readers – something more than a juicy tale.
Cheers to the failures we learn the most from.