If you change your name, can you hide from the people you’re writing about?
I’ve had this rather interesting question: I saw you had written under pen names, and wondered: Is it difficult to keep your cover? I very much need an assumed name, as my novel will include details that will not go down well here with the powers that be. Said details won’t include names and faces, even so, I’d like to stay on the safe side. Do you have any advice or warnings?
As they say in magazines, names have been concealed and details changed to protect identities.
First – is it easy to keep my cover? Yes, because I’m not in hiding or in danger of being unmasked. The ‘authors’ whose names I ghostwrite under are real people. They appear on TV, they go to book signings and talk to the media and fans when necessary. Everyone who knows I wrote the books is within the industry and has a vested interest in keeping my cover. (But that also means I have to too…)
But it’s a different matter if you are genuinely worried about the consequences if someone can identify you as the author. And I’m probably not about to make you feel better.
Here is a law of writing. If you write a book, people you know will see themselves in it even if you categorically did not use them. Your family, your ex, your colleagues. Even your cat if he could be bothered.
Names have been changed
Will a pseudonym mean you don’t provoke those comparisons? It might be enough for situations where the aggrieved party might write an angry letter or exclude you from the Christmas card list. But this correspondent seems to fear a lot more than that.
If your revelations are sufficiently annoying, using a pseudonym is virtually pointless. The publisher is not obliged to keep your identity a secret if a legal letter arrives or the heavies call. They don’t have the code of conduct that journalists have, of protecting their sources. Publishing contracts, even for the sweetest book about daffodil husbandry, have a clause that requires the author to bear the cost of any legal claims or injunctions.
Changing names and faces does not stop someone being identified in your story, as many libel cases will demonstrate. If your friends will see themselves in your novel no matter what, think how sensitive someone might be if they suspected they or their organisation were the material for your book. You might find yourself with a libel writ, in breach of a contractual obligation, or even the Official Secrets Act. If you feel you must hide your true identity, maybe you would be better seeking legal advice and finding safe ways to use sensitive material. Much depends, of course, on what you’re writing, but an agent should be able to advise you, or a specialist media lawyer.
However, if you are determined to make fiction out of your experience, there’s a lot you can do without risking legal repercussions or concrete overshoes.
Spilling the beans – the safe way
Here was my advice.
First, write a private draft, with everything you have to say, for your eyes only. Then think about how to make it into a story. Real life has a habit of being messy, meandering and inconclusive. It often lacks coherence, artistry and all the neatness that make a crafted story satisfying.
Then start to camouflage – by looking for ways to change the story into fiction while telling a core truth.
Find themes to highlight – this will allow you to hone your main plot/ sub plot structure.
Remodel the characters into roles. There will probably be far too many people in the real-life version, so you’ll have to merge some of them. And in fiction, characters tend to have defined roles. There will be a hero, an antagonist, perhaps a mentor, perhaps a loyal friend. Make a list of character archetypes.
Sometimes using archetype lists can seem too formulaic, but you’re not doing this to paint by numbers, you’re working out what to do with a messy, real cast. Terrell Mims has an excellent series on character archetypes and how they work in a story.
Make a conscious effort to let go of real events. You have passed into fiction now – the gods aren’t going to examine you on what really happened. Your duty is to make a story that examines the themes, motivations and behaviours that kicked you to the writing desk in the first place. Identify gaps in the story and invent egregiously to fill them. It will probably be much better than the real version was, and will carry your truths more convincingly to the reader’s heart.
If you’re having trouble getting it all in one book, don’t try. Save material for another. This isn’t your only shot and publishers want a writer who can run and run.
Of course, all of us pour our life experiences, relationships, traumas and triumphs into our fiction – that’s unavoidable. For some of us the urge to write comes from a zeal to lift a lid, right a specific wrong. It’s possible to do that under quite a heavy smokescreen.
What would you add? Have you had to tell a story and camouflage it heavily? Relax… your relatives, friends, former employers will never read this blog… Share in the comments!
#1 by Shasta Kearns Moore on March 13, 2011 - 9:57 pm
Stumbled through from The Red Dress Club link list. How great to find your blog! I’m in the middle of two novels, so this is great information. My training and experience is as a journalist, so I might add to those who are afraid of putting in characters based on people that you should simply talk to and/or show your writing to those people. You’d be surprised how media-savvy people are and interested in seeing themselves in print!
Also, a constructive criticism on your site: it’s very disconcerting that you don’t have a left margin. I kept trying to scroll over in order to be able to read the text better.
#2 by rozmorris on March 14, 2011 - 12:05 am
Hi Shasta – thanks, and hail fellow journalist. Good suggestion for defusing potential trouble – it wasn’t an option in the case of my emailer, but not all ‘true’ stories have to be adversarial.
As to your other comment, what are you viewing the site on? I know browsers and devices may differ, but on my PC it shows up with plenty of room on the left.
#3 by Shasta Kearns Moore on March 15, 2011 - 8:33 pm
Yup, I’m using Safari.
#4 by Julie on March 14, 2011 - 12:44 am
I *don’t* usually write fiction for this very reason – I write best from my own experience, and then when it’s time to move from that into fiction, I lose my way.
The next time I’m attempting a fiction piece, I will be coming back to this advice, for sure. Thank you!
#5 by rozmorris on March 14, 2011 - 7:08 pm
Thanks, Julie – hope you nail it next time!
#6 by thefalconerswife on March 14, 2011 - 1:21 am
Hi there – visiting from The Red Dress Club. Congratulations on “coming out from under the sheet” and writing under your own name. I enjoyed looking around on your blog – very inspirational! BTW, I was able to view your site with no problems.
I also love Ian Fleming. I met Conrad O’Brien French (the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character) when I was a child (I still have a horse he drew for me – he was a great artist and a very interesting man).
#7 by rozmorris on March 14, 2011 - 7:11 pm
Thank you – and what an enigmatic web name you have. Fleming would have approved. I never knew that Bond was based on a real person, although I knew the name came from an ornithology book. You have provoked me to look further!
#8 by I Thought I Knew Mama on March 14, 2011 - 1:48 am
Great advice! I’ve often wondered about the best way to go about this.
#9 by rozmorris on March 14, 2011 - 7:11 pm
Now that is an interesting reply… I’m glimpsing a lot of people this week who have dark secrets.
#10 by Dave Morris on March 14, 2011 - 9:12 am
Left margin is there in IE but not in Safari.
#11 by rozmorris on March 14, 2011 - 7:12 pm
Thanks, Dave! xxx It’s here on Firefox, which is what I use.
#12 by Sally on March 14, 2011 - 5:14 pm
Have to say, this is not a problem I’ve ever had – though that’s probably because none of the people I know are that colourful. 🙂 At best I have named one or two characters or roads or even buildings after people I know or admire in real life, but I don’t borrow from their personalities in any way.
In truth, I don’t think I’d want to create characters after people I knew. I think you make a very valid point when you say the real focus is about the themes, motivations and behaviours.
#13 by rozmorris on March 14, 2011 - 7:16 pm
Sally, be careful what you wish for. My correspondent commented that he once thought his life was too dull to draw on for fiction. It seemed the clouds had ears,
I use real places and people as inspirations for names, in a completely arbitrary way that wouldn’t make sense if the person concerned knew. But in some oblique way, it helps me know my world a little more. That probably makes no sense!
But it’s crucial to remember that fiction is fiction, and you can change anything to serve the deeper story.
#14 by Sally on March 14, 2011 - 7:26 pm
Actually, that make a lot of sense. In a way I suspect writing is a, from a psychological perspective, a way of trying to understanding the world.
I’ll bear in mind what you said about your correspondent. Here’s to a dull life! 😉
#15 by Victoria Mixon on March 14, 2011 - 5:37 pm
Who was it who said your friends will be insulted if they think they see themselves and insulted if they don’t? You can pretty much guarantee if you disguise someone by making them do something they have never done, by the time your book is published they’ll have gone out and done that.
#16 by rozmorris on March 14, 2011 - 7:18 pm
Victoria, if someone didn’t say it they should have.
I hope some of the people I have literarily manipulated don’t follow the example of their fictional selves…