University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

I Am Not My Characters

A fiction writer clears the air.

Confession: I have never slept with my roommate while his fiancée, who was also my roommate, was at work. Further, I have never vengefully dabbed my oil-slicked fingers all over the beautiful silk scarf of the woman who was in love with my dead best friend’s husband. I have also never not known who the father of my unborn baby is. 

But I write novels, three so far, and my protagonists have committed all of these questionable deeds, and worse. So much worse!

Illustration by James Heimer

So it never fails to surprise me when people assume that my fiction is actually memoir, that my characters are just very thinly disguised versions of me.

“I couldn’t finish your first book,” an acquaintance once confided to me. 

“Oh!” I said, fake-cheerfully, “why not?” “Because your protagonist … and the adultery … and I kept hearing your voice, and … it just made me too uncomfortable.”  

“No, but I’m not …” I said. “I’m happily married! I mean, of course that’s not me. It’s, you know, it’s fiction!”  

She made a little noncommittal hmph.

A few weeks later, we ran into each other again at a café where I was having an animated conversation with a male friend; she raised her eyebrow at me, her suspicions clearly confirmed.

I’ll admit, I like to give my protagonists curly hair, like mine (because I believe we are underrepresented in fiction). And my first-person narrative voice is … well, it’s mine, so I understand that people who know me think they are hearing my voice telling them my secrets.

But my books are shelved under fiction. And right there, on each cover, under the title, it says, “A novel.” Why are people so reluctant to believe that fiction is … fiction?  

Nobody asks a lawyer how much of her deposition is really about herself. Nobody suggests to my husband, an English professor, that his syllabus is really a confession of his inner soul. (And, honestly, he’s Irish and loves Samuel Beckett and teaches Irish lit and tends toward the melancholy, so it kind of is.)  

But me, I get emails like this, from a “single, 30-year-old guy”: “I am curious, since you are married, how much of the story was autobiographical.”

A writer friend of mine thinks that social media has confused the issue—that we represent ourselves on Facebook and Instagram under such a pleasing, deceptive glow, that people can no longer tell the difference between what is true and what is made up. But I’m not sure that’s completely it.  

I think maybe it’s about darkness. Fiction—at least the kind I write, which traffics in complicated relationships, betrayals, and regret—is about the dark possibilities of our souls, the underside of who we actually are: the things we would never do, but are, perhaps, capable of. 

Maybe, when people confuse me with my main characters, what they’re really saying is, “I have secrets, too.”  

Life is complex. We make mistakes and we flounder and we make messes of things, and sometimes we love badly. Fiction is fiction, but it tells us something true. 

Lauren Fox earned her M.F.A. from the U in 1998. She is the author of the novels Still Life with Husband, Friends Like Us, and Days of Awe. She lives in Milwaukee.

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