WRITING & PUBLISHING

To Fictionalize, Or Not to Fictionalize?

A key question for every memoir writer

Aimee Liu
3 min readJul 29, 2023

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Photo by Bekah Russom on Unsplash

Many, if not most, memoir writers at some point wonder whether they should write their first-person story instead as a novel, perhaps in third-person. These options represent two layers of separation from the foundational experience, so let’s take them one at a time.

1. Should you write your story as a memoir, or as a novel?

There’s no universal rule here, but first and foremost, it depends on your purpose in writing the story. If your goal is to tell your personal story in your own unique voice so that others will understand what you’ve lived through, what shaped you, why your individual view of the world is a little different from everyone else’s [what makes you unique] and, at the same time, how it relates to everyone else’s [what makes you human], then you probably need to stick to memoir.

Remember, though, that “memoir” label functions as a vow to readers that your story is authentic, accurate to the best of your recollection, and that you believe what you’ve written. Even if you’ve reimagined or guessed at the incidental details, what you’re aiming for in a memoir is the underlying truth of your experience.

Of course, you may have a different purpose, and there could be other considerations, too. Here are a few circumstances that might augur for fictionalization:

  • You’re trying to tell someone else’s story, and you can’t be sure what’s true. Maybe you’re trying to get to the bottom of scenes, stories, experiences that you’ve only been told about. You can still write this as a memoir, presenting yourself as the narrator/investigator, but you might actually be able to get closer to the truth and have an easier time fleshing out the story by fictionalizing it.
  • You’re genuinely afraid of being sued or disinherited by individuals who will object to you telling this story. Maybe they have a case, and maybe they don’t, but only you know whether you are willing to take that risk. My own mother objected to three of my books, including one novel, so fiction isn’t necessarily a fail-safe solution, but it certainly offers more legal cover than…

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Aimee Liu

Author, Asian-American novels (Glorious Boy), nonfiction on eating disorders (Gaining), writing, wellness. Published @Hachette. MFA & more@ aimeeliu.net