Changing Names and Identifying Details
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
When I started writing memoir, I figured it was a great way to set all records straight, so to speak. That I was going to expose anyone who’d ever hurt me. Then I learned that is not only uncool, it’s not the main reason for writing memoir. And, it can open up cans of worms that are better left closed.
But my story did include scenes and chapters sharing times I was badly hurt, and those stories needed to be told. So I was left with a dilemma. Cut the scenes, get permission, or change the names and identifying details. Not in that order.
If your gut says someone from your past who you include in your manuscript could cause trouble, you can make the person blind. No, not literally. But in addition to changing names, make the references as blind as possible. It won’t guarantee to keep angry exes and perturbed relatives from trying to sue, but in theory it should help.
If you are on speaking terms with “Rex the Ex” or “Susan the Sibling,” it will serve you best to reach out and ask their permission to be included in your book. It could be the story you plan to tell may not be a particularly flattering one (in his or her eyes), so you’ll want to feel out the situation. Often, sending a chapter draft to show context can get you the green light you seek. Or, Rex or Susan might be OK with the story, but would like to have their name changed. By all means, do that. Be prepared for a “no” answer and be thinking how you can tell the story without alluding to Rex or Susan. Those who don’t know your book’s cast of characters in real life won’t be missing anything.
You might need to create a fictional composite character who can run interference as the villain in a particular story. But a word about villains. If you’re writing memoir, you should be doing so in first person; you’re the story’s narrator, but you’re not an omniscient narrator as in fiction and should never attempt to guess the motivations that drove people from your past to hurt you. The motivations might seem obvious, but unless you’ve been inside your villain’s head, you really don’t know why she left you for another woman. And honestly, it’s best to not cast your past hurts on those folks you may think were the villains in your life. Just tell what you know and don’t guess at what you don’t.
What if the person in question is impossible to locate or is deceased? I ran into the latter situation in two instances in my memoir. My recommendation is to tell the anecdote or story in a way that honors the person’s reputation and life. If that’s too much of a stretch, well, do what you can. Think about how you might like to be remembered. And you may need to change names and identifying details.
Legal disclaimer: I am not an attorney and am not offering actual legal advice. I’m just sharing what I learned during the writing (and rewriting and editing) of my first memoir.