Reality-Based Characters Too Real?

To be honest … how many of us authors are willing to admit that much of our fiction is thinly disguised autobiography? And are there times when it’s so thinly disguised that it’s barely fiction at all? I suspect this is particularly true of debut novels, and I’ll cop to it myself. My first two, Secretarial Wars (2003) and The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) feature, respectively, a working girl version of me and a college student version of me. Later, I tried to branch out from myself a little more, since I don’t find my own life endlessly fascinating and I doubt that many readers would either. I suspect that most authors, if they keep at it, become more skilled and imaginative at altering reality.

This topic occurred to me recently while I was immersing myself, yet again, in the recently published letters of Sylvia Plath. During her lifetime, Plath enjoyed her greatest publication success as a poet. When asked about her poetic process in interviews, she described it as highly personal, derived from physical and emotional experiences she’d had.

The same technique of utilizing true-life situations for fictional purposes seems more problematic. A narrative is much more likely to evoke real people, who are sure to recognize themselves and might react badly. Plath encountered this phenomenon once she completed her only novel, The Bell Jar. Her British publisher expressed concerns about possible lawsuits, and Plath wrote a detailed letter in an attempt to address the issue.

There’s no denying that The Bell Jar is an angry novel. The central event of the story, the nervous breakdown suffered by a bright college girl, was based on her own breakdown in the summer of 1953. As described in the story, many people contributed to the girl’s troubles, or at least failed to give her the help she needed. These characters are easily recognizable to anyone who knows her history, and to deny their connections to real people seems disingenuous.

Still, Plath wrote to her publisher: “I’ve gone through the book with great care and have prepared a list of links of fiction to fact, and a list of minor corrections which should alter most specific factual references.” Accordingly, she changed many names that were in the original manuscript. She went on to explain that the setting for the first half of the book was based on the Mademoiselle College Board Program for Guest Editors, in which she participated during June 1953. She changed the number of participants from 20 to 12, and claimed that all twelve were fictitious. But in later years, researchers were able to locate the prototypes for all of these young women, and they all admitted to recognizing themselves.

Plath also claims that her heroine’s supervisory editor at the magazine is fictitious, and at any rate there were dozens of editors at Mademoiselle that summer. The only unfavorable thing about her in the story, according to Plath, was that one of the girls described her as “ugly as sin.” If I were the editor in question, I would probably consider that insulting enough, even if my professional skills were never called into question. Likewise, Plath insists that the initial psychiatrist whom the girl consulted about her deteriorating mental state, and who failed to adequately supervise a shock treatment, could be based on any psychiatrist in the Boston area. But that appalling instance of malpractice actually happened to Plath, and I would think the real doctor deserved to be exposed.

Some of the portrayals of people closest to her proved most painful. Plath admits in her letter to the publisher that the mother in the book is based on her own mother, and is a “dutiful, hard-working woman whose beastly daughter is ungrateful to her.” True, but that mother also comes off as an uncomprehending, platitude-spouting dimwit. Aurelia Plath didn’t read the book until after Sylvia’s death, since her daughter purposely kept it from her. But the portrayal reportedly struck her to the core. Similarly, Plath transformed the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, a major financial and emotional benefactor to her during her college years and beyond, into a comically bad romance novelist called Philomena Guinea. This was a rather stunning act of ingratitude, since Prouty was the one who paid for Sylvia’s psychiatric treatment at a high-quality hospital, which effectively saved her life at that time.

There was also the clueless boyfriend, a medical student who denigrates the girl’s poetic interests because they aren’t science, and therefore not as important as what he’s doing. Is he really sufficiently disguised, as Plath insists, because there were many blond, blue-eyed boys who went to Yale and became doctors? And then there was Jane Anderson, a fellow inmate at the hospital where Sylvia spent six months, whose name was changed to “Joan” in the novel. Many years later, she actually sued the Plath estate, because the character based on her committed suicide in place of the heroine. Anderson, who in real life went on to become a psychiatrist, contended that the portrayal harmed her professionally.

It may seem mean-spirited to criticize Plath at this late date, for writing the novel she evidently needed to write. But it can’t be denied that she published it under a pseudonym, and tried to keep it under wraps as best she could. If she admitted to family and friends that it existed at all, she describing it as a “potboiler, and just practice. Nobody should read it!” Clearly, she feared the reactions of real people.

Maybe if Sylvia Plath had lived long enough to write her own autobiography, she would have explored the roots of these characters, much as the late novelist Pat Conroy did in a couple of autobiographies toward the end of his life. For Conroy, the process of making fiction from reality seemed to work in reverse: rather than pummeling those who had failed him, he tried in some ways to make his harrowing childhood more palatable. For example, he used his own father as the inspiration for the tyrannical military father in The Great Santini, but made him nicer than he actually was, giving him credit for acts of kindness that never happened. Donald Conroy apparently chose to embrace the sanitized version of himself. He even accompanied his son on some of the promotional book tours, posing as the original Great Santini.

So it appears that reality-based fiction can address our emotional needs in many ways … to satirize or to humanize or to exaggerate the traits of our friends and enemies and everyone in between. Can any of us claim that our stories are totally made up? If so, they’re fantasies … and I suspect there are some grains of truth to be found even in that genre.