Writing Real Life: Changing the Characters’ Names

The other day I found a hundred pages I’d forgotten I even wrote. It’s from a while ago, of course, but I’m looking at it now and thinking I might be able to do something with it. It still speaks to me as something that wants to be written. Since it’s a true story, the first question is, of course, whether to fictionalize it, and if so, how much. Especially since it covers personal and emotional territory, I will change the characters’ names first in order to flesh out the story. I’ve found this method works best for me when writing prose based on real life. This stirs up my imagination, and as I write, I tend to fill in scenes more vividly with detail, allow more conflict to surface in the scenes, feel the pull of an artful structure, and create more interesting dialogue.

Sometimes, when writing a true story, we change the names of our characters to protect the innocent. But sometimes, we need to change the names to protect ourselves from writing badly. Overwriting, sentimentality, digressions, redundancies, lack of conflict, self-indulgence and superficiality in our writing can all stem from the same cause: a lack of objectivity about our own lives. We can’t see the forest for the trees, and get lost in the details of what actually happened. We are unable to make necessary cuts, changes and additions that will shape this into something artful, because we’re too close to it.

When we write a story with all the real names, we have a certain authenticity, and usually it can help us find deeper truths and express more honestly what happened and what the inner life of a character is. The magic of the subconscious goes to work and memory is stimulated, giving us all kinds of material we never realized were even in our brains. But when we change those characters names, it gives us something else, equally important: objectivity. And that’s exactly what we need when we’re trying to fit our vast experience into a shape – be it a novel, memoir, screenplay, song, or even a poem.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it turns out, when you’re writing about your own life, or the life of another real person. Changing the names of your characters (and self) is a shortcut on the road to distance and objectivity. Even if you’re going to change it back to the real names later, try coming up with new names for all of your story’s characters, and writing your story that way. This will allow you to see that a story is not life, and help you give yourself permission to take a few steps away from the facts, towards a more imaginative place. This is the place you need to be when creating art.

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