Memoir: Do I Use Their Real Names?

"My Story" spelled with wood blocks“Should I change the names of the people in my memoir?”

This is a question that gets asked every time I work with authors who are writing about their own lives.  You can’t very well write about your life without writing about the people in your life.  None of us lives in a vacuum (except maybe a monk living in a cave in the Himalayas, but so far I haven’t had any cave-dwelling monks as clients).

Memoir Isn’t Always Pretty

Of course, this question wouldn’t arise if the people in my clients’ lives had behaved nicely.  These authors aren’t worried about writing that Uncle Saul was an absolute angel.  Let’s face it, you probably want to write about your life because it’s been hard.  Perhaps you had a harrowing childhood or you escaped from an abusive relationship, or maybe you built your dream despite all the naysayers.  If there’s drama or conflict (and drama and conflict make for good storytelling), then at least one person was a jerk.

But just because someone behaved badly doesn’t mean you want to ruin that person’s life by exposing him in public.  (And you certainly don’t want to end up getting sued for slander or libel.)  So what do you do?  Do you write your story as fiction?  Do you move your town halfway across the country and rename all the characters?  Do you change all recognizable traits?

Anne Lamott provided a hilarious answer at a reading I attended many years ago.  Someone in the audience had asked the very question at hand about one particular character in his own memoir and, in true Lamott style, she answered:  “Give the character a small penis.”  Once the laughter in the audience died down, someone else asked, “What if the character is a woman?”  Without missing a beat, Lamott said,  “Give the character a small penis.”

If anyone tries this tack, I’d love to hear how it works.  If, however, you’d rather not mention genitalia in your book, you’re still left with the question:  “Do I use their real names?”

Real or Fictionalized Names?

The answer I usually give my clients comes in three parts:

1.  Write your first draft exactly as it happened, using all real names and places.  You (like most writers) already battle with enough resistance and procrastination when trying to write; don’t make it worse by censoring yourself.  The best way to write a first draft is to remove all censorship and pour it out onto the page.  Save the editing and decision making for a later draft.

2.  Wait until you’re ready to sit down to your second draft (or third or fourth) to decide what you’re going to do about the name issue.  After completing the first draft or two, you might have more clarity on the pros and cons of using real names.

3.  Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney.  We’re often far too close to our own writing (and our own story) to see it clearly.  Hire an editor or enlist a trusted friend (trusted to be kind, but also to tell the truth) and ask her how she thinks you’ve portrayed a particular character.  You might be surprised.  Perhaps you think you’ve written Uncle Saul as a complete ogre, while your editor or friend finds him endearing.  Regardless of how you have portrayed the people in your memoir, if you use real names, or if the characters are otherwise recognizable, you may need to get signed permissions.

Steps to Take to Protect Yourself (And Those You Write About)

If Uncle Saul really does come off as a complete putz, you probably will want to change his name, and you may even need to alter recognizable traits or story elements.  This is where an attorney well-versed in publishing could come in handy.  If you have the good fortune to have sold your book to a publishing house, their legal department will take care of that part, vetting the manuscript before it goes to press.

Even if you paint a character in a glowing light, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation with him before publication, and be willing to show him the scenes in which he appears.

Whatever feedback or advice you get, in the end you’re the one who has to live with the decision and its consequences.  Remember, too, that you have the option to use some real names and some pseudonyms.  You can explain that choice in a disclaimer at the beginning of your book.  The disclaimer language goes something like this:

The stories in this book reflect the author’s recollection of events.  Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted.  Dialogue has been re-created from memory.

I (and other readers) would love to hear how you have solved this dilemma of whether or not to use real names.  Please leave a comment below!

This article was adapted from a post on my blog: http://writingcoachnomi.com

WANT TO REPRINT THIS ARTICLE ON YOUR SITE? You may, but only if you also include a byline and the following wording: “Copyright 2014 by Nomi Isak. All rights reserved—http://writingcoachnomi.wordpress.com.”

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Nomi Isak

Writer, coach, and developmental editor, Nomi specializes in collaboration and ghostwriting, as well as guiding authors through the process of writing their own books. Services include manuscript critiques and proposal and web content development. View profile.

25 thoughts on “Memoir: Do I Use Their Real Names?”

  1. SHIRLEY HIEBERT

    I used real names except for a couple of characters. I tried to treat all characters in a balanced way. I didn’t include particularly bad incidents attributed to a character if it wasn’t needed to tell the story. I also gave relatives of people who didn’t come across well in the memoir a heads up. One character would have stood out if I had given her a pseudonym so I wrote in a way to not make it obvious who as to who the character is. It’s not easy to write a memoir as honestly and intelligently as you can (advice from writer) and avoid not including unpleasantries. We all have them in our life and not all are necessary to include etc.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Shirley. You’ve captured the complexity of navigating the honesty/diplomacy balance in memoir. So important, as you say, to write with honesty and intelligence. (I would add grace and a dash of subtlety.) We need to write our truth. At the same time, we don’t want to cause needless hurt where it can be avoided.

  2. Richard Leibold

    My friend and I worked in the public sector for many years and we would like to write a book about our experiences. The book would tell many true stories about the people and situations we ran across both in a positive and negative way. As an example I worked with a couple of people who decided to take the day off without permission got drunk stoned and were overheard bragging about it. A phone call to the boss resulted in 30 days without pay. When the contacted the union report to file an appeal they were told by the union rep that if it had been up to him they would have been fired. If this were to appear in a book they would recognize themselves immediately.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Richard. There are a lot of things to weigh when deciding what to publish. Luckily you can put everything in your first draft without concern. Just be sure you review and consider before publication and make sure your manuscript is vetted by an attorney if you have a concern about legal issues. But don’t let any of this stop you from writing a book you feel you need to write.

      With regard to the stories you mention in your comment, I would suggest you ask yourself why you want to tell those stories. It’s not a bad idea to be clear about what your motives and goals are when writing about real events.

  3. Can I use a ghost name to write a memoir? I do not want people to know my name in case it does gets published 🙂

  4. I am struggling with this situation with my brother and his wife who treated us badly and caused us grief. Many of the parts in our story about them is an important part of our memoir. There are also hospitals and good friends who might be best if names were altered. It just complicates and changes so many things.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Raechelle. Yes, writing about real events for publication is complex, especially when you need to include less-than-flattering details because they are crucial to the story line. But don’t let that stop you from getting your first (or even second) draft down. You don’t have to worry about it until you are ready to seek a publisher or to self-publish.

      Once you write down the whole truth, as you need to tell it, I recommend you put your manuscript aside for a bit. Then read it fresh and see if there is anything that needs to be omitted or fictionalized. Before publication, be sure to have conversations with those who will recognize themselves (if you’re able to do that) and be sure you get your manuscript vetted by an attorney.

      Good luck with your writing!

  5. I’m starting to write my life story, been writing and saving since I was 13. now the problem is how do I write it without implicating Mom and Dad? can’t change the names. The first 18 years is about Mom and Dad also about brother and two sisters how is it a true story if I change the names? This book will be true and raw. None of it is intended to hurt anybody it’s just always been my desire to put it in a book because it’s just all seems so bizarre like something somebody made up.

    1. Cissy, I suggest you write your first draft as it happened. For the unpublished first draft, you can put down the whole truth, including real names. This will help you capture the authenticity of the story. (I get it that it doesn’t feel like a true story if you have to use made-up names as you write.)

      You can change the names later, before publication, if that seems necessary. It will probably seem odd at that point, too, to change the names. But you will have gotten the story out already in an authentic manner. Remember emotional truth is not the same thing as facts.

      Before publication, be sure to have any necessary conversations with those who will recognize themselves (if possible). Also be sure to get your manuscript vetted by an attorney before publication.

  6. What if you write and don’t use names at all? If the true stories are brief, and the impact was on you, and you use phrases like, “Once, I drove a woman to a writer’s retreat and….” and recount the conversation, without naming her. I understand that could get tiresome for the reader, but is that an option?

    1. Karen, thanks for your comment. You guessed what the problem is with not using names at all—potential confusion for the reader. But if it’s a very short piece, you might be able to get away with doing that. Remember, though, if the story is about some event or characteristic that will be recognizable to that person and others who know her or him, it could still be a problem. As I say elsewhere: Write the piece first, for yourself, exactly as it happened. Then decide if any characteristics or details need to be changed.

  7. I am dealing with this same question. I have decided to use a “pen” name, and everyone in my story that’s related to me has had their name changed to match mine. Do I only have to think about the people I mention in my story, or also of their descendants?

    1. Yes, Penny, a pen name for you and fictionalized names for your characters will help disguise real identities. Once you’ve written your second or third draft, you may still want to review the manuscript (and possibly have a professional review it) to see if there is anything so unique to the person or people who appear in it that they may recognize themselves. If the answer is yes, you may want to tweak the story a bit to fictionalize some details. But don’t worry about all that until you’ve gotten your whole story down.

      As far as descendants of those you’re writing about, you may want to consult a literary attorney about this question.

  8. Hello,
    I was just wondering: I’m writing a book about a certain time of my life, that I will self-published in only 1 or 2 examples (one for my friend and one for me). As it’s just for her and myself I put all the real names of people. But am I supposed to change them by respect? They’re just mentioned, or nothing bad has been said about them.
    The book will be offered as a birthday gift.
    Thanks in advance.

  9. Thanks for your comment, Astrid. If you’re making two books just for you and your friend, you’re probably safe. Especially if you don’t say anything bad about anyone! Putting a story between two covers as a gift isn’t quite the same thing as publishing a book. Nice gift idea!

  10. I’m writing a personal healing about my life’s journey. Some examples include being violated as a young child. My life with my parents and failed relationships. One relationship in particular was a retirement investment of emotional baggage. This individual is mentioned a lot. It’s funny and sad all at the same time. It is my life experience but I’m torn on utilizing real names. As far as family I’m not worried this is my truth but the particular man/ men I have a child with each.

    1. April, good for you for writing your experience as a way of healing. That’s wonderful. If I understand your comment correctly, you are concerned about whether you should use the real names of people you’ve been in relationships with, the fathers of your children. There are so many factors to consider in deciding whether or not to use real names. First of all: Are you planning to publish this writing? (I wasn’t sure from what you wrote.) If not, there’s no issue. If you are planning to publish it, then write your first draft (and maybe even your second) with real names and all. Then before you publish, sit down and consider what impact the stories about these men will have on their lives and their families. Talk with them if that is a safe option. If necessary, consult an attorney who specializes in book publishing or entertainment law. (Note: If you get a publisher, they will have an attorney vet your manuscript.) In other words, don’t stress about it until you’ve got a solid draft written. Before you publish, that’s when to figure it out . . . with the proper support.

  11. Franklin G Fellenbaum

    I am a 66 year old baby boomer and have written about growing up and my boyhood in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s. I have many childhood anectdotes and stories my boyhood friends experienced and I use their real names in chronicling these experiences… however I say nothing negative, defaming or salicious about my childhood chums nor do I cast any of them in a bad light or a negative way. So do I still have to get thier permission to use their names. If not great, if so then getting is getting their written consent sufficent enought and will that protect me legally? And by written consent I mean something like shown below:

    I John Doe, on this date ( date of writing ) give Franklin Fellenbaum my permission to use my name in his book, “Title of Franklin’s Book”.

    John Doe ( Signature of John Doe )

    Ps. and does such writtnen consent in writing need to be notarized??

    1. Thank you for your comment, Franklin. I would think that if you say only positive things and paint your childhood friends in a glowing light, there is likely no concern. That said, it’s impossible to know for certain how others will feel about appearing in your book unless you ask them. It can’t hurt to get their consent. As far as what constitutes a legally binding document, I do not claim to have that kind of expertise. A lawyer would be a better bet. But you may want to hold off on spending money on an attorney until you have a solid draft of your book and are just about ready to publish.

  12. Rodger Clemons

    I’ve written a book about my experiences in a Marine Corps Rifle Company in Vietnam. My question is in regards to using the names of deceased individuals. Unfortunately, there are quite a few. Should I contact relatives of these men, or am I free to use their real names? (I loved your article).

    1. Thank you for your comment, Rodger. That’s a great question. With the caveat that I don’t have the legal expertise to fully advise you, I will simply say that it may depend partly on what you write about these deceased soldiers. People generally don’t want to read bad things about a family member, alive or passed away. If the soldier’s death has been made public, then a simple mention is likely not a problem. However, I would suggest running this by an attorney who specializes in publishing. If you’re going the route of traditional publishing (as opposed to independent, or self-, publishing), they will have an in-house attorney vet the manuscript. If you intend to publish the book yourself, I think it would be a wise investment to at least consult a lawyer.

  13. I’m writing my book about my life dealing with homosexuality growing up in a religious household. In one section, I talk about straight guys in high school and college that I had crushes on and so forth and talk about social situations and events that occurred with them. If I just use their first names, is that ok? I’m not saying anything negative about them.

    1. Thanks for your question, Jared. And good for you for undertaking a book about your life. Not being a lawyer, I can’t give you a definitive answer. In fact, it’s safest, before you go to print, to consult an intellectual property attorney or other publishing attorney. Using pseudonyms is not necessarily the only step you need to take to protect yourself. (Know that any person who is not a celebrity has a legal right to privacy . . . even if everything you say is positive.) And, honestly, in this litigious age it’s better to cover all your bases. So, most important: consult an attorney before publication.

      That said, write your first draft without censoring yourself. Just get it all down, real names and all. You can come back in a later draft to make the necessary changes. When you are ready to make those changes, it’s important to realize that although using only a first name would hide a person’s identity from the general public, some readers—including the person himself—could very well know who you’re talking about. (Some people appreciate five minutes of “fame”; others do not.) Even if you do change the names, some people you write about are likely to recognize themselves based on scenes, circumstances, or traits.

      This is not to discourage you. Write your book! But use pseudonyms for anyone from whom you don’t have written permission and consult an attorney before publication.

  14. I have been lucky enough to have been given my grandmother’s handwritten memoirs. It’s not a complete life story but touches on many of the areas of her life she wanted her family to know. I have wanted to turn these into a book forever but have had a hard time getting started. We have a large family and the people in her book that she has written about expand even further. That being said, most of the people she wrote about have already passed. She was born in the 1920s, but some of her life events were documented in the newspapers. Almost everyone in our family knows something about what happened to her growing up, and even if I changed the names the story is bound to be recognizable to someone. What is the time frame for writing about 3 to 4 generations ago? I am willing to change names and alter the locations slightly, but her story is based largely on growing up on a farm in Alabama. Not only that but there are some stories that cannot be fact-checked. They are told by her perspective and from what she was told. I am curious if I should write this as a novel instead of a memoir. I am at the early stages obviously but want a clear direction to get started.

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