The Art of the Semi-Autobiographical Novel


Last weekend, we took a look at famous literary characters that were inspired by real-life people, but we admit, we held back. Not wanting to flood the field, we discounted any character based on his or her author, and chose only those based on outside sources. To assuage our interest and close the circle, we decided to follow up with a list of a few of our favorite semi-autobiographical novels — that is, novels wherein at least one character is based on the author, and usually containing a plot that revolves around the author’s true-life experiences. Click through to check out ten of our favorite semi-autobiographical novels, from the barely-veiled straight autobiographies to the masterful collages of life and fiction. We know there are hundreds and hundreds of these, so please chime in and let us know your own favorite semi-autobiographies in the comments!

We the Animals , Justin Torres

Justin Torres’s unbelievably exquisite debut novel could be described as a collection of searing anecdotes, gradually easing the narrator away from his collective self-awareness as part of three brothers (“We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more”) to the painful, necessary schism into “they” and “I.” He admits that he drew much of the story and characters from his own life, and when we saw him read, he laughed large at the “how autobiographical is it really?” question and shrugged, but the more he spoke, the more he seemed like his narrator. “Your consciousness is informed by your experience,” he said. “It’s just how the mind works.”

Black Swan Green , David Mitchell

Though you may not know it (unless you’ve read this novel), celebrated author David Mitchell suffers from a stammer. In an article he wrote celebrating The King’s Speech for being the first film to accurately portray the speech defect as he experiences it, he wrote, “Despite growing up in a much saner family than the Duke of York’s, my open and kind parents and I discussed my speech impediment exactly never, and this “don’t mention the stammer” policy was continued by friends and colleagues into my thirties. I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13 year old.”

Dandelion Wine , Ray Bradbury

Though not his most famous work, Dandelion Wine is a beautiful, magical rumination on boyhood and the myth of the eternal summer. Recently, just before Bradbury’s 91st birthday, it was announced that Black Swan producer Mike Medavoy would produce a film version of the novel in conjunction with Bradbury. Of the project, Bradbury said, “This is the best birthday gift I could ask for. Today, I have been reborn! Dandelion Wine is my most deeply personal work and brings back memories of sheer joy as well as terror. This is the story of me as a young boy and the magic of an unforgettable summer which still holds a mystical power over me.”

The Bell Jar , Sylvia Plath

It’s well known that Sylvia Plath’s only novel, originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, is based on Plath’s own descent into clinical depression. Like her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, Plath had a magazine internship in college, met with a similar mentor, was rejected from a writing course she desperately wanted to take, and fell into a deep, lingering depression. Unlike Esther, however, Plath was unable to pull herself back into the world, and committed suicide about a month after the book’s UK publication.

Go Tell it on the Mountain , James Baldwin

Mountain,” Baldwin once said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” The book, based in part on the author’s own experiences as a teenage preacher in a small church in Harlem, is a fantastic, tense tale of a 14-year-old boy’s spiritual awakening and moral maturation.

A Farewell to Arms , Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical novel of World War I marked a turn towards the romantic for him — though perhaps everyone gets a little romantic about what they see in their own life. Many of the characters — Catherine Barkley, Helen Ferguson, the priest — are based on real-life people, and of course Henry is based on Hemingway himself and his own doomed romance when he served in the Italian campaigns of the First World War.

Jane Eyre , Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre was originally published in London in 1847 as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography with the pen name “Currer Bell.” Though the autobiographical subtitle was dropped when Brontë dropped the pen name (a sort of obvious correlation there, if you ask us), scholars have found many similarities between the story and Brontë’s own life. Like Jane, Brontë was an orphan sent to live in a terrible boarding school, and it was there her two elder sisters died, rather than just a friend, as in Jane Eyre.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , James Joyce

Perhaps the most famous semi-autobiographical novel, Joyce’s Bildungsroman follows Stephen Dedalus as he begins to buck the traditions of his Irish Catholic childhood, before finally taking leave of Ireland to pursue his ambitions as an artist. Many editions of the novel have pictures of Joyce on the cover — no need to pretend to model this Dedalus character after anyone else (except of course the mythical character of Daedalus).

Little Women , Louisa May Alcott

Alcott’s novel, which follows the lives and experiences of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, is based on her own experience growing up with three sisters and set in the same house where it was written, Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Alcott is Jo, of course — who else?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas , Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson’s notorious drug-addled novel was based on based on two actual drug-addled trips to Las Vegas that Thompson took (with his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, of course) in March and April 1971, while reporting for Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. Supposedly, most of what would become his most famous novel was scribbled frantically in his notebook at the tail end of each of these trips. In cases like this, Thompson’s famed adage bears repeating: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Yes they have.