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Writing

What Is a Roman à Clef? 3 Literary Uses of Roman à Clef

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

If you’ve ever wanted to write a story about your own experiences but give yourself creative license to play with facts and mask the names of actual persons, you might want to consider exploring the genre of roman à clef. Roman à clef is a French term that translates to “novel with a key.” The first roman à clef novel was written in the seventeenth century by French author Madeleine de Scudery. Roman à clef novels are loosely fictionalized novels based on real-world events that have been a popular form for famous writers for centuries.

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What Is a Roman à Clef?

The definition of roman à clef is a novel that takes some of its premise and characters from real life while fictionalizing certain details and identities. Romans à clef are often presented as fiction with the understanding that many readers will be able to recognize the identities of real people veiled as fictional characters. Literary techniques like satire and allegory are often used in romans à clef. The definition of roman à clef doesn’t restrict it to a given genre, and there are many literary genres that count romans à clef amongst their numbers.

6 Examples of Romans à Clef in Novels

Some of the most celebrated authors in history have published romans à clef at one time or another. The genre has been popular since its creation in the seventeenth century. Examples of famous romans à clef include:

  1. Primary Colors by Joe Kelin: Primary Colors is a roman à clef published by an anonymous author (later revealed to be journalist Joe Klein) understood to be depicting Bill Clinton and other public figures involved in the 1992 presidential campaign.
  2. On the Road by Jack Kerouac: Considered by many to be Kerouac’s magnum opus, On the Road tells a fictionalized tale based on Kerouac’s travels around the United States as a young man. Many characters have fictitious names but are based on Kerouac’s real-life friends
  3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Initially published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Plath’s novel tells a story of mental illness and depression drawn from her real-life struggles.
  4. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: Based on Hemingway’s post-WWI travels through Europe, The Sun Also Rises tells the story of aimless American expats loosely based on Hemingway and his compatriots in the Lost Generation.
  5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing is based on two trips that Thompson took to Las Vegas while on assignment for Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated.
  6. Animal Farm by George Orwell: Orwell intended his allegorical novel to be read as a depiction of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and a critique of Stalinism, all depicted through the prism of animals in a barnyard.
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3 Reasons to Write a Roman à Clef

There are many reasons to write a roman à clef, not least of which is the fact that some of the most celebrated novels in the Western canon fall under the umbrella of romans à clef. Some reasons to try your hand at writing a roman à clef include:

  1. Romans à clef allow creative freedom. Romans à clef afford an author freedom and license not found in other genres. A roman à clef allows an author to bend facts in order to fit a more compelling and artistic narrative. Because a roman à clef’s facade of fiction excuses creative leaps, the form allows creativity that the nonfiction genre does not.
  2. Romans à clef let you reveal sensitive information. Authors who are looking to depict actual events involving real persons can depend upon the roman à clef genre in order to protect themselves from some of the blowbacks that might come with a nonfiction expose.
  3. Romans à clef provide anonymity. Many romans à clef are published under a pseudonym in order to further protect the author from consequences. Even when a roman à clef is published under the author’s given name, the fictionalization of actual persons and events allows the author to publish semi-autobiographical accounts without revealing which aspects are based in truth and which are fictionalized.

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