Roman A Clef: 3 Liberating Reasons Why Writers Should Use This

by Denise Regga | 11 comments

Today's article is written by Denise Regga. Learn more about Denise below the article.

Something happened to you. Maybe last year, or maybe twenty-five years ago, but it left its mark. It could be a crazy adventure or journey, or a massive trauma—or just a period of your life that really shaped who you've become. And you'd like to write it up as a book. The question is, should you write it as a memoir—or could it work better as a roman à clef?

roman a clef

Your decision will determine whether you stick as closely to real life as you can, or embellish and change things a little (or a lot) and call it fiction.

Writing in roman à clef is a choice many memoir writers make after deciding they need to fictionalize their story—and there's nothing wrong with that!

In this article, you'll learn exactly what roman à clef is, some guidelines of how to write a story using it, and why this choice can make a surprising—possibly better—direction for your future book.

A Memoir Writer's Debate

This was my conundrum. I set out to write a memoir describing a year I spent living in Paris, but my main character (coincidentally going by the name Denise) soon revealed herself to be a daydreamer who was constantly imagining alternative realities (think Scrubs goes to Paris, but with less hospital gowns).

Of course, I couldn't escape the fact that I was and still am that dreamer, and I wanted to have the freedom to insert my imaginings into the story I was writing, too.

That's when I realized I was sliding away from memoir and towards the realm of fiction. And I embraced it.

This Memoir Writer Impressed Me [How to Write a Memoir]

Roman A Clef Literary Definition

The roman à clef, or “novel with a key,” was first defined in the seventeenth century by the French novelist Madeleine De Scudéry in order to write about public figures that she would disguise using made-up character names and altered attributes.

In general, writers of roman á clef stories change the real names and appearances of the people that influenced the fictional characters in their story. When an author does this, they can discuss actual persons with a façade of fiction.

Likewise, the events may be embellished upon and altered to only resemble the actual happenings of the moment, but in ways that are often recognizable to those involved.

The “clef” or “key” to the story is the relationship between the fact and the fiction, and in some cases it can be explicitly stated by the author, though usually without giving away any real names. These are often eagerly uncovered by curious readers following publication, of course.

Well-known works of roman à clef include:

THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway:

Tells the tale of a group of American and British expatriates based on Hemingway's real life friends. They make their way from Paris to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls, and the book explores the identity of the Lost Generation after World War I.

PRIMARY COLORS by Joe Klein

Originally published by an anonymous author, the book was later revealed to be the work of a political journalist. It outlines the events leading up to the 1992 Presidential campaign. The characters are fictional portrayals of public figures including eventual winner Bill Clinton.

THE BELL JAR by Silvia Plath

A real life story of mental illness and depression formed the background events for this roman à clef that was initially published under the author pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by Hunter S. Thompson

Describes a drug-affected journey to Las Vegas undertaken by two protagonists, Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo. It draws its real life elements from two separate trips taken while Thompson was writing for Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA by Lauren Weisberger

Written by a former assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, this bestselling novel exposed the inner workings of the Manhattan fashion elite.

When (and Why) Writers Should Use Roman A Clef

Most of our writing is based on our experiences in some way or another, but calling something a “true story” or “based on true events” can be a major selling point. The use of fictionalization is a powerful tool to bring a story to life. Not only can we introduce events as we might imagine or even wish they could have happened, but we can rework our very selves, which we all know is impossible IRL.

As summed up on the podcast Literary Friction by Ocean Vuong, author of the semi-autobiographical novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous:

“It is fiction, because Little Dog is better than me…I get one try, but Little Dog got 12 work throughs, and he’s better, he’s my ideal.”

Some of the reasons you may wish to use this style in your writing include the following:

1. Creative Freedom

One of the main reasons authors use the roman à clef is creative license. This means that facts, dates, and details can depart from reality in ways that benefit the narrative.

Not only that, writing in roman à clef gives the potential to introduce humor and satire, and mould situations without being beholden to the exact truth, which can often be somewhat mundane.

2. Protecting Identities

The use of fictitious names and a partially fictional story to hide the identities of real people can help authors avoid incriminating themselves, hurting or defaming friends or family members (or old acquaintances), or becoming subject to litigation. When deciding if this is important for the book you intend to write, consider the following questions:

  • Will using the actual names of people restrict the details you are able to share about them for legal reasons?
  • Would anyone be offended or upset by your portrayal of them?
  • Would basing your characters on people from your real life create friction in your personal life?

If you answer yes to any of these, then roman à clef might be a good option for you.

3. Develop Interesting Characters

Perhaps the most fun aspect is the potential to play with your characters. It is common practice in this style to combine two or more people into one colorful character, or to give them interesting traits and tics that render them less similar to their real life counterparts.

Readers will certainly be intrigued to search for the “clef” that will unlock the identities of the interesting personalities that populate your story.

Note that as far as genre goes, any insertion of fiction into a story renders it officially “not a memoir,” which does have consequences. For instance, changing the section of the bookshop in which the book is placed.

Roman A Clef Stories Can Liberate Writing

Arriving at a place where I stopped calling my book a memoir was liberating. I could order events in ways that fit the arc and timescale of the story and would resonate with readers' expectations. It also allowed me to invent characters and scenes that drove the plot forward and expressed ideas that were important to me.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I also made use of an informal strategy known as the “small penis rule”, whereby if you don't want a person to identify themselves as a character in a roman à clef and potentially dispute your depiction of them, it suffices to give them a tiny member.

The idea is that no one is going to come forward and say “That character with the small penis, that's me.

Roman à clef is one of a handful of styles of fictionalized memoir that can be a great option if a writer wants to tell a true story, but with a façade of fiction to veil the details that they may not wish to openly share.

While not restricted to a defined genre, it may be a good way to go if you're looking to tell a story that's meaningful to you, with the freedom to tell it how you want to.

Have you ever written roman à clef? Let us know in the comments below.

Need more grammar help? My favorite tool that helps find grammar problems and even generates reports to help improve my writing is ProWritingAid. Works with Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and web browsers. Also, be sure to use my coupon code to get 25 percent off: WritePractice25
Coupon Code:WritePractice25 »

PRACTICE

Choose a meaningful moment from your life and, for fifteen minutes, write it up in the style of roman à clef.

Make at least two important departures from the actual event as you remember it, not limited to the characters' names.

When you're done, post your writing in the practice box below. Then read the contributions of others and try to guess which parts of their stories are made up. Share your thoughts in the comments.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Denise Regga

Denise has a PhD in biochemistry and has published works in journals such as Nature CommunicationsFrontiers in Endocrinology, and The Journal of Molecular Biology. She has also done extensive editing and proofreading of scientific papers and online newsletters. She is currently querying her debut novel, a roman a clef story set in Paris.You can follow all her writing updates on her website here.

11 Comments

  1. Beth Schmelzer

    Yes, I have written pieces for The Write Practice that were Roman a Clef. It is very difficult, I find, to mask the facts (and feelings) of family and, also, I know that my memories are not the same as the family events I am writing about, in the eyes of others… Is that too confusing? Some pieces are poems. Here’s one:
    LEE
    When I am cold, I wear my brother’s blue cotton bathrobe.
    His college sweatshirt: bright red with large letters, comforts me, too.
    The cold and loneliness disappear when Lee holds me in the arms of his clothing.
    I forget the frail limbs and hesitant speech.
    Now I remember his quips, his laugh, his small mouth and teeth speaking to me of caring.
    How can a long-lost brother be your best friend?
    His other sisters have the same sentiment, I know.
    The memories of his kind voice, sharing of family concerns, warm me once again.

    Reply
  2. Elena

    I wrote some too.

    Reply
  3. Debra johnson

    I have always tried to write a Roman ‘a clef. I can’t get it right, or feel like I have done justice to the event or those involved. (Sorry I tried to get the word right, I am typing on my phone.)

    Reply
  4. LilianGardner

    Hello Kellie,
    After reading your article, I know the two stories I’ve written are, roman à clef.
    My stories are of people I know but I’ve changed their names, the names of places, and added some of my own fantasy to masquerade the bare truth. I find it easier to write like this because I visualise the characters, towns, roads, and so on, and I already have the story sorted out from start to finish. I then change, or invent some episodes to improve the story.

    Reply
  5. Toni Kief

    Inspiring, been trying to get a handle on my great X14 grandmother. History neglects the feminine parts of the stories. They have lost her birth name, date of birth and date of death. I actually learned she died between a husband’s will and a son’s will. Answers a lot of questions.

    Reply
  6. Bruce Carroll

    What is it called when you go the other way, when you write fiction and present it as factual? That seems more my style.

    Also, Animal Farm? Animal Farm!? By that standard, any fiction is roman a clef.

    Reply
  7. Mark Noldy

    I think many stories are probably a bit Roman a clef. Great article!

    Reply
  8. TerriblyTerrific

    So, a real story in disguise. I would need to be really creative. And, I always wonder how to write about someone in my past without them knowing it is about them. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. ✨Ian S Goudie✨

    My dreams, my plans, my future, my whole life smashed into a thousand pieces. The school’s decision to place me into a non-academic class had killed a twelve-year-old boy. My exam results were not good enough. Hanging around the local café with my pals every night hadn’t helped. All of us were facing vocational education. It didn’t bother any of them, but it bothered me.

    I had tried to study, but it wasn’t easy. There was no lighting nor heating in the bedrooms, let alone a desk and chair. Whilst downstairs in the living room my siblings and parents were always arguing about something. The noise of them shouting and screaming at each other was even louder than the television. Often the quarrels would lead to violence. Either my brothers fighting with each other or my father exerting his authority, by using his large frame to beat my brothers or my mother. I sat under the stairs pretending to be invisible and doing my homework. But they could still see me.’Do you think that you’re better than us, you lazy shit?’ The question rotated between my brothers and my father but was always accompanied by a kick or a punch. No, I didn’t think I was better than them, but I was different.

    I was the youngest of four brothers, slightly built and short for my age but I was fairly smart too. My teachers said that I was intelligent and should make the most of my potential but my father didn’t care. He wanted me to be the same as my brothers. They were not academic. Most of their schooling didn’t suit them, but they liked working with their hands and enjoyed their craft classes. Three wooden fish sat on our mantelpiece, testimony to their skills. I had no wish to add to the tally.

    I wanted to make something, though. A future, away from this hell which masqueraded as life. A decent education was to be my escape tunnel. My plan was to keep my head down and burrow away until I had achieved the qualifications required to join the Merchant Navy. But the light at the end of the tunnel had disappeared and its walls and roof had collapsed, trapping me underground in a dark and claustrophobic world.

    I walked out of the school gates in a trance and wandered for one hour after another until my legs turned to stone. I don’t know where I went, or how far I walked., but in the gloom of night, I reached the bleak council house where I slept. I found no solace in the dimness of my bedroom. The moon shone through the windows, where curtains had never hung, and I could make out the shapes of my brothers as they lay sleeping, oblivious to my pain. My bullying siblings, my tormentors and now my mentors to be.

    Exhausted, I crept under the old coat, my pauper’s duvet. The course horsehairs of its fabric prickled my naked skin, whilst I struggled to find a spot free from the sharp rusty springs which protruded from the urine stained mattress, I then pulled the coat over my head and lay motionless as I cried myself to sleep.

    As usual, I raised at 4 a.m to a brand new day. Every dawn should give us a fresh start, new challenges and new hope, but this morning a dark cloud greeted me.

    David Mackie, the dairyman who hired me for the local farm, gave me much more than a job milking 120 Ayrshire cows every day. He gave me confidence and self-respect too. He treated me as a colleague, a friend, a young man. David was even taller than my father and heavy set. Not once did I hear him raise his voice, nor see him raise his hand, in anger. He must have been ten years younger than my dad, but he was more of a father figure than the fifty-year-old alcoholic who beat me with a leather belt.

    David picked up on my low mood. The red puffy rings which had formed around my tear-stained eyes told a story. The usual cheery Stuart Henshaw replaced by a troubled twin. David did not question me about my mournful mood but during the next three hours, we chatted until he understood the reason for my sullenness. He wanted to see me do well at school and encouraged me to meet the Head Master direct and make my case. ‘Stuart you are a smart lad with a bright future ahead of you, don’t throw it away. Tell him you want to study. Let him know how much education means to you. Beg for a second chance’.

    A few hours later, I found myself in the corridor outside the Head’s Office. For nearly ninety minutes, I sat there before being summoned into his office. As I entered the room the enormity of the situation hit me. I stood there alone, vulnerable and shaking. For an age, my lips refused to move but then nervously I uttered my words. Although I had rehearsed them in my mind, they still sounded foreign when spoke out loud. I appealed to him to give me a chance to prove myself.

    ‘I’m sorry, I should have done better. I’m capable of more, ask my teachers. Education means everything to me, if you give me another chance I won’t let you down, I’ll study harder than anyone else. I’ll be the perfect pupil. Please, I’m begging you’.

    Mr Marshal listened to my plea and then mulled things over. The room filled with the deafening sound of silence. And then slowly he began to speak ‘the decision cannot be reversed’.

    A knife stabbed me in my heart, my head drooped forward, my legs gave way. I was sinking, drowning. But then I heard his voice continue. He was throwing me a lifeline. I resurfaced gasping for air, but still alive. He towered over me, his dark brown eyes, magnified by his thick spectacles, peered down at me. His manicured moustache moved up and down. ‘I will speak to your teachers and consider the options. Come back in two days’. His words were few, but they meant a lot. They gave me hope.

    After the longest forty-eight hours of my short life, I was back standing in front of his gigantic oak table. At the other end sat Mr Marshal in a huge leather chair.

    I listened in silence as his commanding voice announced my sentence. He wouldn’t allow me to transfer into the academic class, but I could repeat the second year. On one condition, though, I would need to place in the top six of the class. I accepted, without hesitation. We had a deal.

    For the next ten months, I spent every evening studying in the town library. My parents sat next door in the local pub, drinking their lives away. They didn’t know where I was and cared even less. I wasn’t bitter, I appreciated that life couldn’t have been easy for them, bringing up four children with little money. The horrors of World War II were never spoken but a curved Gurkhas’ knife adorned our living-room wall, acting as a silent reminder of their past. They had fought for a better future but did they get one?

    I also fought for a better future. I sacrificed my childhood and lost my friends. My new classmates wondered what I was doing in their class. ‘Why is he being kept back, is he some sort of spastic?’ I overheard someone whisper. I could have easily lashed out at him but that was my father’s way. I didn’t want it to be mine too.

    Life was tough. At times, I struggled, but I persevered. I worked hard and got the results. My exams went better than I could have hoped for. I kept my part of the deal and finished in the top six. I placed first in the class.

    On the day of the prize giving ceremony, I’m sure Mr Marshal winked as he presented me with my diploma and a £25 book token. I should have been happy, but I didn’t belong here. I stood out like one of the many pimples on my adolescent face. The other prize winners looked so smart, in their pressed school uniforms and shiny shoes. Their family and loved ones surrounded them. Smiling and sharing in their success.

    I stood beside the door, dressed in faded jeans, a red tartan shirt and scuffed trainers. There was no one there to congratulate me or to wipe away my tears.

    Reply
    • Marsha Hansen

      This is a powerful story and wonderful writing. I hope you find great success as an author. I wanted to keep reading, and find out what happened.

    • ✨Ian S Goudie✨

      Thank you so much for your kind words Marsha, they really are much appreciated.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

38
Share to...