Is it really true? Genre: Biographical Fiction

Biographical Fiction takes a contemporary or historical figure and uses elements of that person’s life to tell a fictional narrative.

An author might choose the genre, biographical fiction, when writing about real experiences in their life or even a fictional account of the full story of their life. This genre isn’t a memoir (but can be written like a memoir with first person narration) because the story also contains elements of fiction.

Sometimes an author uses biographical fiction to avoid hurting others who become characters in their writing. They also may want to take liberty to change the details for dramatic effect.

41O0WxzeQ5L._SX255_BO1,204,203,200_An example of biographical fiction is, I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn. It’s told in first person as Amelia Earhart, using biographical information known about the pilot.

Blurb from Amazon.com: “In this brilliantly imagined novel, Amelia Earhart tells us what happened after she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared off the coast of New Guinea one glorious, windy day in 1937. And she tells us about herself.

There is her love affair with flying (“The sky is flesh”) . . . .

There are her memories of the past: her childhood desire to become a heroine (“Heroines did what they wanted”) . . . her marriage to G.P. Putnam, who promoted her to fame, but was willing to gamble her life so that the book she was writing about her round-the-world flight would sell out before Christmas.

There is the flight itself — day after magnificent or perilous or exhilarating or terrifying day (“Noonan once said any fool could have seen I was risking my life but not living it”).

And there is, miraculously, an island (“We named it Heaven, as a kind of joke”).

And, most important, there is Noonan . . .

51v-zo8SXkL._AA160_Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, originally published under the pen name, Victoria Lucas, is also considered a biographical novel. It was the only novel that she ever published and it’s known to be associated with her own experiences with depression. She published it under a pen name because, according to “The Guardian” and many other sources, she didn’t want to hurt people that she wrote about in the book, namely her mother.

410XvrbROEL._AA160_From Amazon.com (back cover blurb) The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic. 

One of my own writing goals is to write a series of biographical novels based on historical Christian men and women. I’m working on a biographical novel now about William Wilberforce using lots of research into historical documents.

Following is my excerpt from the beginning of Wilberforce — In, but not of, the World. The characters are real. I only added details to flesh out historical documents.

“Good Heavens Hannah, what have you done to my son?” Billy’s mother turned from his aunt to his uncle and namesake. “And William, have you no regard for the memory of your dear brother? Your aging father? Or me?” She pressed a gloved hand over the knotted bow of her cloak. “You allowed Billy to parley with low class fanatics while I’d fallen victim to a long and most dangerous fever.”

Aunt Hanna’s ashen appearances drew a stark contrast to his mother’s face, as red as the glowing embers in the parlor fireplace. She’d emerged from her illness like a lioness and rendered his aunt and uncle as stiff as the statues of Canterbury Cathedral.

His mother waved an envelope addressed in his handwriting. “It is quite evident that our best laid plans for Billy have gone horribly awry.”

If he’d known his letter would bring Mama to St. James Place, he never would’ve penned it. 

***

Often biographical novels are made into films, like Amazing Grace, which was based on the life of William Wilberforce.

1coverAnd lastly, while my first novel, Crooked Lines, is fiction, some of the scenes in the book were based on on mine and my husband’s life experiences. I’m including an excerpt here from a time–a true story–when my husband, a young seminarian in India, was put into a position to rescue teenagers who had dropped out of school to join a dangerous and radical communist group.

“Raju, where are your brother and his friends?”

“I cannot say.” The child stared at his bare feet.

Sagai knelt in the dirt, grasped Raju’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Raju, do you love your brother?”

“Yes, Brother Sagai.”

“Then take me to him.”

The boy folded his hands across his chest and jutted out his chin. Sagai spoke in his kindest voice.

“Raju, your brother is in trouble. Together we can help him.”

He pointed northward and ran.

Sagai followed down streets and alleys away from the lights of the village. Near a lone mud hut on the edge of town, the boy stopped.

“You’ve got to fight,” came a voice from inside. “Resist the government.” Sagai took a deep breath, made the sign of the cross and offered a prayer, then pushed open the door. 

***

Writing prompt: What experience have you had that would make a good premise for a biographical novel? Or would you prefer to call it fiction to add your own twist to the story…or to protect the identity of the characters based on real life people?

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