View Full Version : character names, real names

03-08-2008, 11:02 AM
Hi. I've recently begun writing a novel, in verse, which is best described as a fictional story based around an actual five-year period in my own life. I am writing in first person, and characters are addressing me in the dialogue by my actual first name (which will correspond with my name on the ms title page). I'm intending to retain the actual location (ie suburb, city), but am unsure as to whether to make the place where 90 % of the novel is set known. It's a reasonably well-known (indeed famous) Australian textile manufacturer. I did think of not identifying it (ie simply having a "nameless" place, identified simply as an Australian textile factory) but I have reconsidered. This is because, importantly, my novel is set in the 1980s, and I want to explore the various contexts of the outside world vs the world inside the factory. To do this the sense of place, I feel, needs to be stronger - thus, it's more authentic for readers to know that my novel is "about ... the such and such company". The other issues on my mind are to do with time, and with characters. The story begins in 1987, and concludes in 1992. So, much of the "fictionalised" story is based on things I lived through, saw, remembered, from approx 20 years ago. I only personally know one person I worked with there, and I asked him recently if he wouldn't mind "him being in the novel" ... and he said fine. What I'm meaning here is that, while it is fiction, and conversations and events are being significantly "blurred" or altered entirely, I want to (as much as possible) give my main characters their "actual" names. By this I mean first names only. But I don't really want to make up new names, because it'd seem too fake to me. And some of their names are unique and interesting it would seem a crime to change them. And it also feels to me as though in many ways it's "their" story as much as mine, so I want their names to appear on the pages out of respect. But ... How appropriate is this? I'm writing fiction, and thus there is a strong (very strong) possibility that some sort of love interest (imagined, not acted upon - as I was 17 at the time) will develop. In fact, I think this is essential to the novel's appeal. Otherwise it would be a boring "diary" kind of work, much too linear and with nothing "at stake" - as factory life tends to be. Yes, I am romanticising the factory experience, but am also humanising it and exploring the aesthetics of such an experience - in the 1980s, a time long passed. As far as the actual factory premises is concerned: it is being bulldozed for housing at this moment. The company changed its name ten years ago. I have not seen (to speak to) my former colleagues (some of whom I want as characters in the novel) for 15 years. Is it wrong, or is it ok to use their names (first names only) without seeking them out? Time has passed, and people move on, and I do not feel it's appropriate to chase after people simply because I want to write a novel. I may be able to catch up with one or two of them, over the coming months, but cannot be sure if I will. And, anyway, should people be dragged into such a spotlight by writers who want to be pedantic about "doing the ethical thing" or should such things be left alone - and just written about. Would appreciate your thoughts, and can elaborate further (either in open forum, or via private message). Thanks.

03-09-2008, 05:54 PM
Hi Astyanax,

Your thread contains a number of interesting topics and questions, and they all cut to the heard of how to convert life events into stories.

One source of endless frustration for memoir writers is names. One of the best answers I've heard comes from Kate Braestrup's memoir "Here when you need me." She says that since Maine is a small state with recognizable towns, she has mashed up not only the names and identifying characteristics of the individuals. She has even distorted descriptions of the towns so people would not be able to identify either the person or the town they are from. Since your book is stating right up front that it is fiction, I would think such a technique could easily be employed to protect the identities of the people involved.

As far as your question about if it's "right" or not, there are a few possible things to consider:

1) If you hurt someone you care about or someone who is willing to be litigious, that's a bit of information that you might want to take into account.
2) If you publish it, your editors will answer it for you. If your goal is commercial, you don't even need to think about it yet.
3) An easy way to explore an ethics question is to ask "Would you want someone doing this to you?"


03-14-2008, 02:49 AM
thanks, Jerry, for your input. :)

03-30-2008, 06:59 PM
I have a follow-up question on this subject. If you change character and place names, can you still call your work a "memoir", or a "historical account"? In other words, if you do this, does your work become fiction?


03-30-2008, 08:20 PM
Hi Gurdyman,

Before seeking an understanding of what you are permitted to do in a memoir and still call it a memoir, you should realize there is probably no right answer. The fact is, there is no governing body, and different authoritative people could hold very different opinions. And anyway the answer might change from year to year.

So then, looking for one answer in this maze boils down to examples and a search for authority. If you are being published, the final decision probably rests with them. If you are wondering about the most famous case of a Million Little Pieces, everyone I spoke to in the business seemed unanimous in the opinion that James Frey would never have incurred Oprah's censure if he had included a disclaimer in the introduction, explaining he had taken a couple of liberties with the facts.

One memoir I read recently, "Here when you need me" by Kate Braestrup warned in the introduction that she changed not only individual names and descriptions but also the descriptions of towns, to protect individual identities. Since she states her intention to change names and places, apparently she was still allowed to call it a memoir.

If you want to tweak the story for dramatic effect, you are moving into "fiction based on a true story" territory.

I hope these points help you build your understanding of this complex issue.


03-31-2008, 05:34 AM
Thanks, Jerry,

The subject looks a bit more complex than I thought it would be.