Ready to pull back the curtain on your life? Write a memoir. I have edited my fair share of memoirs, and I’ve always respected an author who has written about a painful or memorable part of their life. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, after all—and when reading memoirs, you’ll find that the limits of the human body and mind are incredible.
In a memoir, an author promises the reader that he or she will be forthright and honest in the events of their life. It’s all truth here.
But life is not always pretty and happy—and sometimes we can cross paths with others who are damaging or hurtful to our lives. And later, when time has passed, scars have healed, and an author is writing her story, she might wonder: “Can I use peoples’ real names in my memoir?” Let’s talk 3 important rules for using real names in memoirs.
1. Use the real names of people you’ve gotten permission from.
Some people in our life help us, and they are portrayed as “good” characters on the page. But others might be harmful or hurtful, and they are portrayed in a negative light in the memoir. Most people won’t complain if you’ve written glowing things about them in your memoir. (Hey, I wouldn’t mind if someone wrote wonderful things about me!) It’s the characters that act badly—those who have hurt the author (and story’s protagonist) in some way. In memoirs, this can be an abusive ex-boyfriend, a controlling mother-in-law, an incestuous uncle.
Even though these might be “bad” people according to the author, there are ethical and legal issues that arise when writing and publishing negative things about someone. It’s true that under the First Amendment, authors can write whatever they want—they are entitled to their opinion. But some people might see themselves in a memoir and try to sue on defamation or invasion of privacy grounds. This is rare, but…yikes.
If you’d really like to use real peoples’ names, it’s imperative to get their written permission just in case. The rule of thumb is that if you don’t have their permission to write about them (whether good or bad), just don’t do it. It’s just a precautionary measure. If you can’t or don’t want to get written permission to use their name in your memoir, let’s move on to rule #2…
2. Don’t use the real names of people you speak negatively about.
You can use the real names of those who have given you written permission to do so. But when getting written permission isn’t something you can or want to do, it might be easier to change the names of the characters in your memoir.
That’s it. Simple. Changing their name, description, and the city they live in is a quick, easy method to avoid issues with possible defamation and invasion of privacy complaints. While they might still recognize themselves, you’ve protected yourself legally. And that’s all that matters.
3. If possible, always write a memoir under your real name.
Memoirs are true stories. The point of a memoir is for the author to tell their story—being honest, truthful, and forthright. While opening up to tell a painful story can be hard and sometimes embarrassing for the author, that’s the covenant the memoirist has taken when deciding to write a memoir: to be honest in telling their story.
Using a pseudonym when writing a memoir takes a step back from that honest, raw openness present in a memoir. It takes away from the intimate relationship between a memoir author and his or her audience. In short, publishing a memoir under a pseudonym cheapens the honesty and credibility of the memoir.
Memoirs are hard to write. The process of writing of a painful or important part of someone’s life is difficult enough, but then publishing your work and having people read it—especially friends and family, who might find themselves on the page—is a nerve-wracking experience.
“What if my sister recognizes herself in my memoir?”
It’s a relevant question—and a hard one to answer. Even if you change the names of the “characters” in your memoir, they might still recognize themselves in your memoir. It’s difficult to imagine how they might react—but you must remember to stay faithful to your own life’s experiences. People you write about might not ever speak to you again, but as long as you have gotten written permission from them or have changed their names and details, you’ll be okay.
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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of
Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing
services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several
authors whose books she has edited have won awards and have
topped Amazon's best sellers lists.
Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she
can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her
four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,
eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is
likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.