#1351: “Can I use my ex’s pseudonym in my novel?”

Hello, yes, I have seen your many Tweets and emails asking (and in some cases demanding) that I weigh in on the Bad Art Friend thing. I have opinions, but they are neither fully-formed nor fully informed opinions, especially as it seems like new information keeps coming out all the time that changes the narrative a lot. The initial article gave me so much trepidation I could barely get through it, and I do not have the patience or time to sift through court records like a Literary True Crime-Solver. Perhaps, instead, I can answer a question someone actually sent me about how to ethically handle intersections of art and life? I wrote the response to this one a little while ago and had it in the queue to edit and post but then a bunch of life stuff* came up before I could, but it seems timely!

Hi Captain!

I’m wondering if it’s okay if I (she/her) use my ex’s (he/him) pseudonym as the name of a character in my novel. And if it’s ambiguous, I’d still like your opinion!

My ex-husband has been calling himself by this name online for many years because he was born in a politically divisive country and culture and his birth name made that situation obvious. He never changed his name officially and he uses his legal name day to day in real life.

The name he uses online is actually more closely related to my background than his. To clarify, the pseudonym he chose includes a last name from my cultural background, but not in my family history. However he has no connection to my cultural background other than his marriage to me. I want to make it clear he chose it before we met, though.
I’m from a more privileged background and home country than him, as well. However he got a higher degree than me and he’s educated in a very elite field. He’s also struggled with mental health issues throughout our relationship, and despite my best efforts he’s the one who ended our marriage. He also admittedly cheated continuously throughout the marriage from the very beginning of the relationship.

I know it’s not that likely but I worry he is going to sue me if my book is successful. I wouldn’t put anything past him – he’s smart and vicious and capable of ruining the life of anyone, given the opportunity – BUT the name really fits the character. I have been using it during the writing process for months now, but as things start coming together I’m starting to worry (I’m sure he’ll be so happy about that if he ever comes across this!).

So my question is, is it worth fighting for my character or do I give the baby his bottle?

Betrayed and Bad Ass

Hello, Betrayed And Bad Ass:

Writing fiction and publishing fiction are two distinct processes, usually linked in the middle by a series of revisions.

Legally speaking, I am not a lawyer in any jurisdiction and I cannot speak to the legalities of including a recognizable portrayal of a real, live, not-public-figure person in a published piece of fiction. If you reasonably think a vindictive dude might sue you and your publisher because you used this particular pseudonym, then that’s definitely a conversation to have with your editor and possibly an attorney at some point before publication to make sure you are maximally protected. Just, practically speaking, if you’ve managed to get a vindictive person out of your life, you may not want to send him an engraved invitation to a renewed sense of grievance. Somebody could have a weak or nonexistent case and still use the courts to suck years of your life away.

Creatively speaking, I think you can generally write whatever you want about whoever you want. You do not owe people flattering portrayals in your fiction and you don’t owe the world a fair hearing of both sides. Even if you’re writing memoir, the expectation is that you’ll write the truth about your own experiences and recollections of events. So, when it’s just you and a blank page that nobody else will see? Name names. Settle scores. Spill some beans. Layer in all the carefully hoarded observations and details you’ve been saving up. You don’t have to solve publishing problems right this second, so feed the fire in your belly with your ex’s pet name for himself if that’s what gets it done; spite is motivating. You can always pull up a name generator later when you need to.

Ethically speaking, being free to write whatever you want does not mean being free of consequences from what you wrote. If you include recognizable details about real people in your published writing, fictional or otherwise, if you disclose confidential information about them (like mental health diagnoses), assume that somebody will connect the dots, and assume that the people you wrote about will eventually feel some kind of way about it. They may not have grounds to sue you, but they might think you are a bad person or a lazy artist, and they might tell their own stories where you are not the hero.

Legal consequences aren’t the only consequences, and “is it technically legal” isn’t where I personally set my own ethical line. Nor is there only one way to approach this, no “One! Simple! Rule!” that everyone should follow all the time. I have asked people in my life for permission and agreed on ground rules before telling stories about them, even when I haven’t technically needed to, because the relationship was important to me, or because it was sensitive material and I wanted to make sure I had informed consent. On the other hand, sometimes telling the truth about a relationship is incompatible with preserving that relationship, and setting some bridges on fire is necessary to survival, creative and otherwise. In general, there are very few people who enjoy having their lives harvested for “material,” and I think writers should be honest about that and honest with themselves about what their objectives really are. Meaning, if there’s some part of you that wants your ex to see & recognize himself in your pages someday, if you really are trying to settle scores by reclaiming the name, in public, where he can see it but can’t control it, that might be what you need to do, both to heal and to tell your story, like, “Fuck you, you’re not the boss of me!” Just, be honest about that impulse now, so you can weigh it against the consequences down the road, and make sure they’re all ones you can live with.

I think my vote is, draft your novel without worrying about any of this too much.Then use the revision process to test out alternate names and obscure identifying autobiographical details until you find the right balance of memory and imagination. Wherever you eventually land on the name, down the road, the small group of people who know both you and your ex’s online persona will undoubtedly recognize what you’re about, your ex will be exactly as weird about it as he is about everything else, and you’ll have a published novel, in addition to the joy of no longer being married to that guy, plus the ability to say, “Why would you assume that everything I do is about you?” with an almost straight face.

*Life Stuff, Good News: I am working on a Captain Awkward book that will eventually be published by St. Martin’s Essentials. Mr. Awkward and I celebrated being married for 5 years last Friday, and he recently started a job at the local food pantry. The rolling series of family health scares has *mostly* quieted down.

Life Stuff, Bad News: [CN: MEDICAL STUFF]

My fibroid tumor (nicknamed Guillaume) is back, he’s the size of a large mango or small grapefruit, he’s partially calcified, he feels like an actual bowling ball dropping on my bladder whenever I stand up or sit down or roll over, he steals my life force and makes me severely anemic, and he has a new friend in the form of a weird cyst I have nicknamed “Chanel” that gets a lot of “Huh, well, it could be a lot of things….” from doctors when they look at the scans.

Most of my time and energy this past month or two has been spent hemorrhaging (periods should not last for 44+ days or require crime scene cleaning skills because you “stood up from a chair” or “shifted position”), undergoing invasive medical tests to figure out why I’m hemorrhaging, and haggling over phone calls with the hospital scheduler and my insurance company while also…hemorrhaging. The next invasive, complicated, expensive thing on the list is a hysteroscopy where they’ll take tissue samples to rule out (or detect) cancer,  followed by (most likely) a hysterectomy. #ProjectYeeterus

.As if that’s not enough, between hormonal shifts and missing regular cleanings over the course of the pandemic before I could be vaccinated, my teeth and gums went from “Great job, keep doing what you’re doing!” at the dentist to needing something called “scaling and planing” and having a painful and unsalvageable molar extracted. Turns out the teeth-falling-out dreams were trying to tell me something.

As you can imagine, my mental health, focus, and stress tolerance have not been amazing of late, and I apologize for the infrequent blogging. I do have a lot of partial drafts in the hopper (like this one) that just needed some cleaning up and I’m going to try to release them from the queue a bit this week as I can. Thanks for reading!