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Why I can’t write a roman à clef

Not that type of Roman

Not that type of Roman.

While The Remainders is being considered for publication, I will post spoiler-free commentaries about the issues and themes I cover in the book. This is the first installment of the series.

The Remainders is a personal story, but it is not a roman à clef. You won’t be able to say Character A = Person B and even a character who seems like someone really isn’t.  This isn’t just a writing choice. I tried writing a roman à clef years ago, and I didn’t even finish the first draft. Here are the problems I see in that style.

I’m the type of writer who likes to create characters, wind them up, and watch them go. They often go in unexpected directions and develop traits I didn’t initially consider. Characters emerge organically, which is necessary to make them well-rounded, realistic, and relatable. To do this, I need the freedom to create them any way I want and put them in any situation that fits the character and the story.

I don’t have this freedom in a roman à clef. I feel obligated to make characters act the way their real-life counterparts do. I’d also have to hold back on areas that might offend someone (or get me in trouble). It’s especially hard if I base a character on myself. I had that problem with my failed novel. I made my doppelgänger too good because I was afraid of humiliating myself by being too frank. I also found myself hamstrung on the situations I put the character into because “it didn’t happen that way.”

I need enough emotional distance from my characters to make them do what is necessary for the story. If I have to make a character a complete scumbag and then kill him off by dropping an anvil on his head, so be it. Even if he is a writer who grew up in Reseda.

Having the freedom and distance to create characters actually makes the writing experience more personal and therapeutic. I can look at things I had been reluctant to see before. I can challenge my own assumptions and consider different points of view. A fictional world enables both writers and readers to see the truth that is hidden in long-assumed “facts.”

Ultimately, our stories are not only for ourselves, but for our readers. We have to create a world they can inhabit. If we fill it with inside jokes and hidden personal messages, we can make readers feel left out. When we make personal references, they must make sense to the story. They should be an invitation for the reader to know us and our fictional world better.

These are the reasons why I can’t write a roman à clef, and why I’m glad The Remainders isn’t one.

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