For years I have written nonfiction. I’ve studied memoir, creative nonfiction, narratives, journal writing, and essays. I’ve even written three nonfiction books. But for my next project, I decided to try something different. That is when I was introduced to roman à clef.
Roman à clef is French for “novel with a key.” It is a “novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction.”
Three Reasons to Write Roman à Clef
I discovered roman à clef about a month ago while rewriting the memoir I’ve been working on for the last two years. When I thought of all the problems I had encountered in my memoir, I found most of the answers in roman à clef.
Here are three reasons to consider writing roman à clef:
1. Creative License
One of my greatest struggles in writing memoir was the obligation and attention to detail and truth.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the truth is important to tell. But I also think that in writing nonfiction we can become so concerned with portraying the events and facts in absolute truth that our creative storytelling gets lost.
Roman à clef gives the author the opportunity to craft the story beautifully without the pressure of fact-checking.
Satire is another one of my favorite genres. Satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to criticize or confront people or ideas. It is often used in politics. You can find more about how to write satire here.
Roman à clef can often include elements of satire. They are often used together to write pieces that confront the beliefs or politics of certain people while disguising the actual person.
3. Author Protection
The truth is, most writers write from what they have experienced in life. We write about our childhoods, families, friends, first loves, and everything in between. It’s just a matter of how well we disguise it.
Writing a roman à clef gives the writer the opportunity to tell hard truths through real stories while protecting themselves and those they love.
Historically, authors would use roman à clef to avoid incriminating themselves and their friends and writing things that could be used as evidence against them in court.
While I’m not writing about any law-breaking activities, some of my best writing does come from stories of my childhood and heartbreaks. While telling these stories, though, the last thing I want to do is to hurt those whom I care about. So what if there was a way to tell those powerful stories yet preserve the relationships and people in those stories?
Roman à clef is the answer.
Roman à Clef Examples
Famous authors have used roman à clef for decades. Here are a few examples you might not have known were roman à clef:
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: This 1926 novel is about a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. The characters and plot are based on people and events in Hemingway’s life.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac: This 1957 novel is based on the travels of Kerouac and his friends across America, its protagonists living life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Described as semi-autobiographical, this book follows a young girl from Boston who moves to New York City to pursue an internship with a prominent magazine but slips into depression and mental illness.
Animal Farm by George Orwell: A satirical example of roman à clef, Animal Farm is said to illustrate the Russian socialists as barnyard animals.
What Story Will You Tell?
Roman à clef is a powerful way to write stories that are hard to tell as nonfiction. It gives you the opportunity to tell your story beautifully and tastefully, and maybe even write how you think the story should have gone.
Don’t we all wish we could write those stories?
Have you ever written roman à clef? Let us know in the comments below.
Take fifteen minutes to write a roman à clef piece. Try to remember a powerful story from your life and use some of the elements above, like changing some of the places and names, to rewrite the story as a roman à clef.
When you’re done, share your piece in the comments below and leave some feedback for a fellow writer!