“Write what you know.” This piece of clichéd, but sage, advice is the basis for some of the most acclaimed novels in history. Some simply explore their native milieu and insert a fictional plot, while others write a roman à clef, skirting the border of fiction and reality. Roman à clef—French for novel with a key—is a fancy term for a fictional story based on real life. It’s a pervasive form, and secrets itself among our beach books (The Devil Wears Prada) and heavy literature (The Bell Jar) alike. It’s not surprising that most writers explore their own lives, often with the aid of a parallel self (much like the famous artists who also employ alter egos). Authors may choose to veil their alter egos with differing qualities, or let their true selves shine through. Which of your favorite characters is secretly the author? Find out in our list of famous writers’ alter egos after the jump.
Nick Adams – Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway wrote about his life through the eyes of his alter ego, Nick Adams, in twenty-four pieces of fiction. They were collected into a book, The Nick Adams Stories , in 1972, and cover a large chunk of Hemingway’s life from his childhood in Michigan through his adult wartime experiences. One of the stories, “The Killers,” inspired two Hollywood feature films, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s first short film.
Henry Bech and Rabbit Angstrom – John Updike
The Janus-faced alter ego of John Updike is encompassed by two antiheros — Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech. Rabbit, a high school superstar turned middle-aged car salesman, seems to describe another life without literary acclaim or predilection, answering Updike’s question, “What would my life be if?” Henry Bech, a frequently blocked writer, represents the hilariously dark underbelly of literary circles. While Rabbit is wreaking havoc on his relationships, Bech is slyly killing literary critics. Behind both, John Updike’s smile can be seen.
Theo – Stephen Elliott
Stephen Elliott’s novel, Happy Baby , is a roman à clef about his childhood of abandonment and abuse. As a ward of Illinois state, Theo was raped repeatedly by his caseworker and lived in constant fear. The outward layer of fiction is so thin that Elliot’s dedication “To the state of Illinois” stings. Elliott continued the story in a memoir, The Adderall Diaries , which covers his father’s reaction to Happy Baby. He accuses Elliott of rewriting the truth. The two books, read together, are an interesting exploration of the nature of storytelling and dual selves.
Jim Burden – Willa Cather
Willa Cather’s masterpiece, My Ántonia , includes a male alter ego in the form of Jim Burden. Their histories match, both coming west at the same time, living on their grandparents’ farms, and moving into town. Cather and Burden even both met the Harling and Shimerda families, although they went by the last names of Miner and Sadilek in real life. The interesting cross-gender of Cather and Burden wouldn’t shock anyone close to the author. As a student, Cather often went by the name William and dressed as a man. She also lived with a woman, Edith Lewis, until her death, and many scholars now view her work through a lesbian perspective.
Henry Chinaski – Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski and Henry Chinaski share everything: a childhood, a career, lovers, and alcoholic tendencies. Five of Bukowski’s six novels are based on his own life, and star the low-life icon and very thinly veiled self of Henry Chinaski. Even Bukowski’s sixth, and only truly fictional novel, Pulp , features an appearance from his alter ego. You could say it wouldn’t be a Bukowski novel without him.
Kilgore Trout – Kurt Vonnegut
Kilgore Trout started as a spoof on a science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, but quickly became Vonnegut’s own alter ego. Trout’s writing career mirrored Vonnegut’s, seen through a hyperbolic lens. Both were originally regarded as fringe sci-fi writers, and gained mainstream acclaim. As writers, they explored the same themes. Trout is featured in six of Vonnegut’s novels, and even inspired artwork and this amazing interview between the two before Trout killed himself by drinking Drano.
Frederica Potter – A.S. Byatt
Frederica Potter is the protagonist of what is referred to as “The Frederica Quartet,” beginning with The Virgin in the Garden and ending with A Whistling Woman . The four novels span Frederica’s adolescence through her thirties. Potter and Byatt have much in common, including their birthday, studying at Cambridge, and their love of literature and pursuit of being a writer. The second novel in the series, Still Life , won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award.
Nathan Zuckerman – Philip Roth
Philip Roth originally used Nathan Zuckerman, a fictionalized self, to explore the meta-relationship between a creator and his art. Roth introduced Zuckerman in My Life as a Man as an alter ego of a fictional writer, Peter Tarnopol, making Zuckerman an alter-alter-ego. Roth features Zuckerman in his later novels in a more straightforward way, as the narrator of The Human Stain and American Pastoral . Roth has written eight novels featuring his alter ego—over 2,215 pages!
Arturo Belano – Roberto Bolaño
Roberto Bolaño displayed his alter ego proudly by giving him an alliterative name—Arturo Belano. Arturo Belano’s starring role was as the protagonist of The Savage Detectives , but Bolaño’s second self has appeared in three of his novels and was the unspecified narrator of his last book, 2666 . A note Bolaño wrote at the end of the novel said, “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all. I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you all goodbye, Arturo Belano.” A sad note, indeed.
Esther Greenwood – Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath wanted to hide Esther Greenwood’s role as her alter ego so badly that The Bell Jar was originally published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. The parallels are obvious: Plath and Greenwood both won magazine scholarships, were rejected from a famous writer’s class, and were institutionalized. The novel draws on the extremely personal—the decline of Plath’s mind. Sadly, Plath did not outlive her alter ego for very long: her suicide quickly followed publication of the novel.