Back to Frankie's
ESL Worksheets

COMPARING FICTION AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY

 
 

 

FICTION

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

First person narrator (“I”) 

Common (narrator is a  character) e.g. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby Always in the first person (though we can sometimes distinguish between “personal” and “public” selves – e.g. Maya in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
 

Factual events 

Real historical events sometimes feature in novels – e.g. the fixing of the World Series, bootlegging etc. in The Great Gatsby 
 
Real events, both domestic and public …  The focus depends on the author – e.g. a politician might focus mainly on his/her public life.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has a mainly personal focus but against the background of racism, the Depression, etc. 

Fictional events 

Always, though normally (except in Sci-Fi, Horror etc.) they simulate real life events.  Many autobiographies include imaginary sequences (e.g. the encounter between Momma and the white dentist in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).  Even “factual” events are distorted in the process of crafting a story - dialogue is invented, details are included or omitted and so on. 

Figurative language (similes, metaphors etc.) 

 

Very common. Very common.  An autobiography that did not use figurative language would probably be rather dull.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings makes extensive use of figurative language. 

Chronological sequence 

Relatively rare.  Time shifts are more common.  (“Animal Farm” follows a strict chronological sequence, perhaps in order to demonstrate clearly the decline of democracy under pig rule.) Even in autobiography, this is fairly rare. 
Non-chronological sequence (flashbacks, flash-forwards, foreshadowing etc.) very common.  It allows the author to create suspense, highlight parallels/contrasts, add to the reader’s understanding of a character and so on. Authors often start with a significant event or memory rather than the moment of birth.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for example, starts with an incident in a church when Maya was about 5 or 6, then shifts back to when she was 3.  Later it continues to flash forwards and backwards. 
 

Detailed characterisation, including psychological depth 

 

This is common in “serious” literature, though some genres (e.g. thrillers, Sci-Fi) emphasise plot rather than character. Ironically, The Great Gatsby seems like an investigation of Gatsby’s character but he remains something of a mystery even at the end. The focus of most autobiographies (e.g. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) is the narrator’s personal development.  Sometimes other “characters” are portrayed in considerable depth too – e.g. Momma in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Detailed settings 

Very common – e.g. East and West Egg and the “valley of ashes” in The Great Gatsby Relatively common (e.g. description of home town, such as Stamps in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). 

A strong plot 

 

Many novels include events leading up to a climax and then down to a resolution.  A “sub-plot” is common.  Autobiographies tend to contain a series of “sub-plots”, though there is sometimes a dominant storyline (e.g. the narrator’s pursuit of wealth, fame or justice). 
 

FICTION

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

 
 

Frankie Meehan