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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enter your practice here:
Denise has a PhD in biochemistry and has published works in journals such as Nature Communications, Frontiers 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.