What is an autobiographical novel?

An autobiographical novel is one that is based on the life of the author. While that’s not surprising, it’s important to note the word based. An autobiography is factual, while an autobiographical novel only uses the truth as a starting point. Put another way, an autobiographical novel is as much fiction as it is biography, the mixture of which is up to the author.

Why Write an Autobiographical Novel instead of an Autobiography

The decision to write an autobiographical novel instead of an autobiography involves many factors, including both privacy and libel concerns (not all autobiographies are advertised as such, and may just be published as novels), and technical considerations.

For example, most people’s lives don’t have a neat plot line, this can of course be fixed in an autobiographical novel. Introducing fictional characters and events, which may or may not be based on real people, can also be used to emphasize or detract from certain ideas or themes in an autobiographical novel. Reordering events and introducing fictional characters or events  in an autobiography would be considered misrepresentation at best and literary forgery at worst, as in the very famous case of A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

The Coming of Age Novel

It may be hard to think of many autobiographical novels off the cuff until you remember that they also include coming of age novels. While not all coming of age novels are autobiographies, a good many autobiographies are coming of age stories.

Coming of age autobiographical novels are about the childhood or early life of the author. It’s a cliche that beginning novelists often write their coming of age novel as their first attempt at fiction.

Classic Examples of Coming of Age Autobiographical Novels

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • A Pair of Blue Eyes by Tomas Hardy
  • Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  • Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

More answers to writing questions 

Each weekday I answer a writing question, from basic ones like what is an author, to more complicated ones like, are editors still needed, and should writers take the time to write book review? Often, with the more difficult topics, I also include helpful checklists and/or cheat sheets. To make sure you don’t miss out on one of these free resources, you can always follow me on your social media vice of choice, like Twitter or Facebook.

Also, if you have a question, please, for the love of… ask me! Seriously, do you know how long it takes me to dig up these questions? Please save me some time and ask me! My husband and child will thank you for the home-cooked meal instead of pizza, again.

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