The Truth About False Names

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When I teach nonfiction classes, I arrive with a list of essays to read and craft points to discuss. It’s true that participants will be subject to my flights of will, but I’ll be subject to theirs too—anything they want to talk about, provided it has to do with writing, we dive into on the spot.

Last session, more than one student asked me about false names in nonfiction: When do we use them? How do we pick them out?

I said—truthfully—that it was always okay to use false names, provided you tell the reader you’re doing it. A few words in the text will do this fine, e.g., “Constantine (not his real name) procured me a leaflet,” or “The woman parachuting down over the superdome turned out to be someone I’d known for years. I’ll call her Matsuko. As she fended off the security personnel, I found myself wondering what Matsuko had been up to since we’d gone to Yeshiva together in the early 1950s.” That or a short note at the end of the piece, or the beginning.

What fake names to use is a more complex question, but not an especially difficult one. I told my student the rule of thumb I use, one that tries to tell as much of the truth as I can while also telling a lie: place of origin matters, age matters, number of syllables matter, religion and ethnicity matter.

Everyone comes from somewhere, and that place helps to shape them. The same boy raised in New York City will simply be a different person—if only slightly—if he’s raised in Fort Peck, Montana. Likewise, social class matters: when fictionalizing a name for Willow from Eugene, Oregon, don’t just pick a common botanical and call her Rose or Lily. A willow is a little mystical, and that’s what her parents wanted. The style of parent you had comes across in your name, and that’s important, character-forming information. Call her Sequoia or Ariel.

The novelist Matt Salesses has noted that in a majority-white culture such as ours, the reader will probably assume most literary characters are white, unless specifically told otherwise. This leads to imaginative homogony, and anyway might well misrepresent the real person you’re discussing. I shamelessly change Alejandro’s name to Ricardo. It would be a kind of lie to call him Teddy or Hua. Such, in any case, is our world as it stands.

Does this mean that someone named Larry of Choctaw ancestry must, in your story, be given the false name of Wolf or Bear? Of course not. Call him Ted, but don’t leave his background a mystery.

One of my students—I’ll call him Mark—told me his memoir revealed the commission of a crime by a close friend, a crime for which that friend had not yet been apprehended. He asked if there was any acceptable way to falsify his friend’s background to make him harder to find. How’s this, I offered: You can generalize. Chicago can become “a large Midwestern city.” But it can’t become Buenos Aires. Your friend’s pet boxer can become a border collie, if it must, but it can’t become a box turtle. Frankly, a Shih Tzu would be a stretch.

My next nonfiction class—a special class in flash nonfiction (or especially short nonfiction) begins on Tuesday, April 17. If you’ve got questions, please come! If you’ve got any questions in the meantime, contact Lighthouse or me (or one of my false identities: Sean Ahern, Luke Kelly, Jack Brennen).

Lighthouse instructor John Cotter is the author of the novel Under the Small Lights, and his work has appeared in Electric Literature, Catapult, Puerto Del Sol, New Genre, and elsewhere.