What are the characteristics, or features, of the autobiographical novel?

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howesk | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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An autobiographical novel is a work of fiction that is based on the life of the author. It is different from an autobiography because it does not claim to be entirely true, but is instead mostly fiction with connections to the author's life. The author has written a book based on his/her life, but distanced the novel from reality in some way by incorporating fictional events and characters. Autobiographical novels often include intense themes such as sex, war, and family troubles which an author may not be comfortable exposing in a true autobiography. Some examples of autobiographical novels include: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

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teachersage | (Level 2) Educator

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While some have said that all novels are autobiographical, an autobiographical novel is a distinct form in which the author writes about his or her own life but in a fictive guise. In an autobiographical novel, the writer hews closely to the events of his life, but characteristically adopts a fictive name and persona, and may change events, places or chronology to highlight a thematic point. Often autobiographical novels are written in the third person rather than the first person, allowing the writer to put distance between herself and the autobiographical events being described.

A good example of an autobiographical novel is You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. Although Wolfe is talking about himself and events in his own life, he casts himself as a character called George Webber, who like him, is a writer, who like him, is rejected in his hometown, and who, like Wolfe, travels to New York and Berlin. In Berlin, Webber, like Wolfe, is celebrated as a writer and grows increasingly disenchanted with Nazism. 

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The autobiographical novel is a hybrid genre in which authors take elements from their actual lives but present them in fictionalized form. Autobiographical novels can be closely related to a slightly different genre called the "roman à clef" (novel with a key) in which fictional characters correspond to actual people. The main difference between the two genres is that while a roman à clef does not necessarily include the author as a character, the autobiographical novel usually has the author as a protagonist. 

There are significant differences between an autobiographical novel and a nonfictional autobiography. The first is that the former may blend fact with fiction, recasting events to make a more satisfying story, while works that claim to be nonfictional are often castigated for lying if they depart from actual historical events, although this line may become blurred in New Journalism (e.g. the work of Hunter Thompson). 

Autobiographical novels vary as much as their authors do but one very common pattern is that of the bildungsroman, the novel of coming of age. Many autobiographical novels incorporate coming of age narratives including The Bell JarThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Look Homeward, Angel, and Charlotte Brontë's The Professor and Villette.

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