So, if you are reading this, you probably know me. If I write something about you (or if I already have) and I intend to publish it, would you prefer that I use your real name or a pseudonym?
One question my students often have is, “Should I use the real names of people I write about?” I wish I had a consistent answer on this. My own practice is to sometimes use the real names, and sometimes not. I never use first and last names both, because it is weird to refer to someone as “Nathaniel Hawthorne” if I knew him as Nate.
When I use real names:
- When I am 100% certain the person will never read the piece and that they would likely be shocked that would write about them. This is because a lot of the people I write about are not necessarily people I knew that well or remain in contact with, not because they cannot defend themselves, but because I use writing to work out why the memory of someone I didn’t know all that well stays with me so vividly. I want to know why someone talked the way he did or why it bothered me so much or why I found the person sitting down the row in study hall so interesting. Some people just make a lasting impression on us and it’s not immediately clear why. The process of figuring that out is the best part of writing nonfiction.
- When they are in my immediate family. Because I use my own name, not a pen name, and anyone can figure out who they are right away.
- When the person’s role is fairly peripheral, and they do nothing controversial.
When I use made-up names:
- When I worry that something I write might hurt someone. For instance, if I am writing about a family I babysat for in which the parenting was a bit suspect, it can only cause harm to use the real names. Sometimes this is hard, particularly when the person has an amazing name. One girl I wrote about in “Child Psychology” had the best name, but I didn’t want to use it because she had dealt with a difficult disability when we were children and I didn’t feel right about using her actual name. It was a great name, though, and it was painful not to use it.
- When the person asks me to use a made-up name. I would never say no to this, but I have to choose the name, because I need to be able to remember it. The name has to be right for the person. If you are not sure what pen name I would use for you, ask me.
- If they are in my extended family. They didn’t ask for this, and we have different last names, so it’s not a problem.
- When I am describing a place in not-s0-flattering terms and I think that it would be better to avoid giving that place any negative publicity (for instance, the college I attended, which I do say some unflattering things about, and where I faced some challenges that were not necessarily the school’s fault.) I call the school Couer de Pierre, which translates to “Heart of Stone” , which isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement, but again, this is more about me at the time than about the school, which, to be fair, had to deal with people like me.
- When I don’t remember the person’s real name. This happens a fair amount. Especially with people I dated. Sorry (not sorry), Nate.