The pesky problem of reader assumptions

My 7th grade science teacher liked to say, “Never ASSUME. It only makes an ASS out of U and ME.” I’ve always found that maxim easy to agree with, but difficult to live by. Despite good intentions, I often make assumptions — out of convenience, and perhaps a bit of arrogance too. It’s a habit that I fight, but have yet to fully and truly break.

I’m often reminded of that when I’m reading. Just yesterday I read “Miss Lora” by Junot Diaz, and I found myself wondering if Diaz’s brother had had cancer. When Wikipedia confirmed that he had, I began to assume that other parts of the story were true as well. (Namely, that as a teenager Diaz had an affair with an older woman in his neighborhood.)

The thing is, I should know better. I’m a writer myself, and I’ve had to deal with people’s assumptions about my own stories on more than on occasion.

Now, in fairness, sometimes we writers bring that problem upon ourselves. In TWENTY-SOMEWHERE, the 3 main characters are based on me and two of my best friends. This does not mean that everything that happens to the 20SW girls happened to us; in fact, very little of it did. (No flirtations with a supervisor. No boyfriend sneaking onto my computer to check my word count. No hot Venezuelan — unfortunately.) But because the girls’ personalities are so close to me and my friends’, people assume that the rest is close to our reality too. Even people who have known us well and for years.

I’m lucky that those two friends don’t mind my borrowing from our personalities and creating some confusion about our lives. But as I saw with Andy’s book and the controversy it caused, not everyone is okay with that kind of muddy ground.

So what can be done?

Well, I think the only step writers can take to prevent reader assumptions is to write about things completely foreign to their own lives. But is that a fair request/requirement? What about the rule to “write what you know”? The instant that writers start borrowing from our own experiences in order to enrich our stories — whether setting, characters, plot or even language — we invite speculation.

(Did Suzanne Collins have mommy issues? Is Twilight meant to promote conservative Mormon views? Has Nicholas Sparks lost everyone in his life to tragic illness?)

No matter how many denials or disclaimers you provide, readers are going to assume things. Some of it will be true, some of it won’t. (Some of it will be flattering, some of it won’t.) There is very little we can do about it — so I guess literature has that in common with, well, most things in life.

I, for one, would not want writers to feel restrained from putting parts of themselves or their lives into their stories. Many of my favorite songs, books, and plays are inspired by real life to some degree. (Steel Magnolias, “Teenage Dream,” The Joy Luck Club.)

It’s on me, then, not to leap to conclusions or judgment. Easier said than done, but I try. Because the last thing I want is to make an ass out of anyone.

Like this:



What it takes


I’m becoming that dog lady


  1. This is a tough one. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t write a lot about myself on my blog, so that readers don’t make the wrong assumptions, but in the end, they might assume anyway. We can’t stop that. Everything we write is filtered through our experiences and perspective, so its impossible to take it out.

  2. Julia

    Other people’s assumptions are an annoying fact of life. I think if I was ever published, the dedication would read “Mom, I swear, this isn’t me.”

  3. I am always grateful that almost nothing is known about Thomas Pynchon (my favorite writer, I guess) on a personal level. Even what he looks like or where he lives. So, I can just enjoy the books without worrying about the rest.

    I think many writers deny the connections which are there because they know many readers will then assume that _everything_ is based in reality. Because there are connections, but those are usually just springboards for the creation of characters and situations.

    I have a character named Pete. His physical description and habits/obsessions are all based very closely on somebody I know — anybody who knows him can see the connection — but my friend has never played the bass guitar, he’s considerably less bohemian than Pete, and he’s married with two children, as opposed to sharing his life with a lunatic mass murderer. So, not really a biography.

    A couple of other posts I’ve seen in the past couple of days address these these issues. Emma Burcart wrote about “Writer vs. Person” about this exact question ( and Laura Stanfill wrote a post which touches on the question of “write what you know” ( — scroll down for my comment where I begin to list all the great literature we wouldn’t have if people only wrote what they know).

  4. This is an interesting post for me to read right now. I know this isn’t the point you were making exactly, but I’ve been contemplating writing something I know very well…to the point where the line between memoir and fiction would be quite murky. While, of course, I always pull experiences from my life to put into my fiction, this one would be so close to home that I’m not sure I would want anyone to read it–or at least not anyone who knows me.

  5. T.S.-
    Yup, exactly. Ty point was that people are going to assume no matter what, so just do what you want to do.

    Lol but would she believe you? (My mom doesn’t always…)

    Yes, privacy was something authors of earlier generations could better secure. Nowadays it’s a near impossibility. As a writer, I have mixed feelings about that. As a reader, I confess that I love looking up authors (and actors and musicians) and getting an insight to how their work might relate to their lives.

    I’d say write it first, then decide what, if anything, to do with it. That was the advice my creative nonfiction professor always gave.

  6. I never make it more than 20 pages into a book before I flip to the Author’s note or interview with the author in the back of the book and try to figure out how autobiographical it is. To me, it becomes even more interesting when I think that what I’m reading is based on someone’s life. But, I try not to assume it is real. I just wonder.

  7. Such an interesting topic. I wonder if/how it differs for readers who aren’t also writers – does the fact that we always hear “write what you know” impact the way we interpret others’ books? For me personally, my manuscripts are generally a combination – the actual plots have never been based on something I’ve experienced, nor are the characters deliberately reminiscent of people I know, but I have absolutely included certain situations/qualities/incidents from reality. In turn, it often makes me wonder how much of themselves authors weave into their work. It’s more of a curiosity than an assumption, though, I think, precisely because of my own experiences with walking the line between adding some of myself vs. not adding too much. Like you said, it’s all about not jumping to conclusions or closing ourselves off to other possibilities of where the story may lead.

  8. Interesting topic, Kristan. (Been following your blog for years…now just got one of my own). I think our society really judges. I know I’ve done it myself and I know others have too. And a lot of the time it can be hurtful. For example, a recent example, I was talking to a guy in my college class last night about how my favorite movie EVER was Heathers (I even wrote a YA loosely off of the idea…or well, it sparked my WIP, I guess). He proceeded to tell me that was screwed up and that loving that movie was akin to liking 4/20 because of the Columbine shooting. I was too stunned and my response was a stuttering mess. Of course the entire class heard THAT part of the conversation and proceeded to turn around and stare at me. Just because I love somehting dark and crazy and quirky does not make me akin to liking or enjoying horrible events… Believe me, I heart unicorns and sparkly dresses. I am certainly not a killer. (Maybe in murdering my darlings but….different topic!)

    As for dreams =/= reality… I often wonder how much of the author is in a book. For example I read a well known book and knew straight away that, originally, the main character was the “author” down to likes/dislikes/looks. The character’s job was not the same as the writer, but the description of them was. Of course some of it was changed as in real life people don’t have purple eyes, but still… Realizing mc = author made me a little sad inside.

  9. I’ve wondered about this before, too! Like I sort of worry that writing about a fictional family will make my real family members think that’s how I see them, or giving certain traits to my main character will lead my real-life friends and acquaintances to think I’m describing myself. But since publishing is nowhere on the horizon for me yet, I try not to worry about it too much, haha.

  10. Juliann-
    Lol me too! I LOVE acknowledgments.

    That’s a good question. I think I’ve thought of myself as a writer/aspiring writer too long to be able to answer, but if I look at my friends who read, you’re right: they seem less interested in the connections between author and story.

    Congrats on the new blog! Looks great. :)

    YEESH what an insensitive thing for that guy to say. If it makes you feel better, I like a lot of twisted movies (Se7en, American History X, Fight Club) but I’m about as wholesome and tender-hearted as they come. (I have not seen Heathers though… I should fix that!)

    “Realizing mc = author made me a little sad inside.”

    Me too. I guess I like seeing some connections, but when “fiction” is really just “memoir,” I wonder why it’s not ACTUALLY memoir, and I can’t help feeling a bit… disappointed. Cheated, almost.

    Hm, I should examine that reaction more…

    Oh, my mom definitely reads into things too much. She’s gotten better over the years, but I think it’s the kind of thing writers will always deal with to some degree.

    But like you said/implied: write for yourself first, for the story that demands to be told. THEN worry about what people will think. (And heck, maybe not even then.)

  11. Jon

    This is the reason all of my screenplays star a heroic young man named John (not Jon for the record) who is capable of many feats, including but not limited to super speed, mind control, and singing ability. I can’t help it if people assume things about me!

  12. ROFL genius! Why didn’t I think of that?!

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