Roman à Clef

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"The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed, to protect the innocent."

A fictional account of Real Life events, loaded with Captain Ersatzes of real people. These are often autobiographical, but not always so. These differ from Inspired By and Very Loosely Based on a True Story in that the story is not dramatized, merely retold with different proper nouns. Historically, many of these have been great success merely from people in high society buying them to figure out if they are one of the characters.

The name is pronounced "Ro-mahn ah clay." It's French for, roughly, "novel with a key" (for which read: decoder ring). As seen here on The Other Wiki, sometimes the key to who the names were supposed to be would be published and in circulation. It has nothing at all to do with unusual Italian musical notation, or Dr. Alto Clef.

Compare Very Loosely Based on a True Story, Biopic, Docu Drama, Anonymous Ringer, Historical Domain Character. See also The Tasteless But True Story and Spell My Name with a Blank.

Examples of Roman à Clef include:

Anime & Manga

  • The Yuri manga Husky and Medley, as well as the 2channel chat logs the story is based on, replaces the names of the protagonists with the nicknames given to them by 2ch anons as the story of their romance unfolded.


  • The Film of the Book Z, mentioned below. During the opening credits, the text "Toute ressemblance avec des évènements réels, des personnes mortes ou vivantes n'est pas le fait du hasard" appears on the screen. The English translation: "Any similarity to actual persons or events is deliberate."
  • Citizen Kane blends the line between Mockumentary and this trope, as the character of Charles Foster Kane is loosely based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst did not take to the similarities kindly.
    • Probably to keep Hearst from suing him, there is a line in the beginning of the film where one of the men who is making the documentary about the late Mr. Kane asks what makes him different from other famous newspaper magnates like Pulitzer, or Hearst. Mentioning Hearst as someone other than Kane meant lawyers could plausibly argue the character wasn't the real person. Legalities might also be part of the reason Kane buys his ingenue an opera house, as opposed to the movie studio Hearst purchased for Marion Davies. In Real Life, millionaire Samuel Insull built the Chicago Civic Opera House in order to feature his less-than-talented wife; if Hearst had sued Welles, RKO or Herman Mankiewicz, they could have claimed that the film was based on Insull as much as anyone else.
  • The intro of The Great Dictator references this.
    • As do the Three Stooges shorts that knock at Nazi Germany. "Any resemblance to real persons or events is a crying shame."
  • Primary Colors was a famous one.
  • Velvet Goldmine.
    • Interesting in that it is two Roman à clef put together: that of David Bowie/the emergent glam rock scene as well as Citizen Kane (a Roman a clef itself), with bits of Oscar Wilde's life thrown in.
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • Inherit the Wind
  • Almost Famous is a fictionalized autobiography of writer-director Cameron Crowe's teenage years as a writer for Rolling Stone , with the sort-of Fake Band Stillwater as expy of numerous bands he had encounters with in The Seventies. (The band Stillwater existed IRL, just not with the songs played during the movie.)
  • The plane crash at the start of Final Destination is obviously based on TWA 800. It's the same plane, same route, same cause, same group of students going to Paris; Roger Ebert criticized this as being a bit tasteless.
  • David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Graysmith. The movie uses the real names of all the people involved, and is thus actually truer to real life than the book, which used pseudonyms at the time.
  • My Favorite Year.
  • Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz; which also functions as an exercise in Self-Deprecation.
  • The Red Shoes (1948) overlays the Faust legend on the life of the infamous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, despite claiming that "any similarity to real-life persons or events is completely accidental." The movie turns one of Diaghilev's real-life lovers into a woman but removes the sexual tension, so Boris Lermontov (the film's version of the impresario) still comes across as a diabolical homosexual.
  • The members of Monty Python had to invoke this when critics of their Biblical satire Life of Brian accused them of making fun of Jesus, even though Jesus and Brian are two separate characters.


  • The Vassilis Vassilikos novel Z tells of the assassination of a left-wing politician. That it is a Roman à Clef is made particularly clear in The Film of the Book, above.
  • Several of Herman Melville's first novels - Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket, for example - are essentially factual accounts of his experiences.
  • Many of Hunter S. Thompson's books - for example, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - are novelizations for events in his life.
  • H.D.'s novel Asphodel contains a depiction of the literary world she moved in, with thinly-veiled portraits of such writers as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and D.H. Lawrence.
  • News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a novelized version of the kidnappings of reporters and other media personnel by Colombia's Medellin Cartel.
    • There is also evidence that Chronicle of a Death Foretold was very inspired in a real case from the fifties, with enough similarities left under the name and circumstances changes that one of the surviving characters sued the writer for benefits. García Marquez used to be a journalist for trade, so several of his novels have some degree of this in the guise of Historical In Jokes.
  • The Chilean book King Acab's Party.
  • Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point
  • Joyce Carol Oates is very fond of fictionalizing real cases of murder and violent death, sometimes sticking very close to actual events but going inside the minds of the people involved, sometimes departing much farther. Some examples (there are more) include My Sister My Love (JonBenét Ramsey), Zombie (Jeffrey Dahmer), Black Water (the Chapaquiddick scandal), "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (Charles Schmid), "Dear Husband" (Andrea Yates), and "Landfill" (John Fiocco).
  • The Dear America series, which is in diary format. Usually it will recreate things that happened in history, only on a smaller scale and before the actual event happens.
  • Although Proust denied it, In Search Of Lost Time is rife with barely hidden Captain Ersatzes of his contemporaries, such as Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac.
  • Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is based off of her childhood as well as the Scottsboro Trials.
  • Elie Weisel's Night is generally labeled a novel, although it is an account of his experiences
  • Grave of the Fireflies, which was based on the author's childhood during and after World War II, except in this case, his Author Avatar, Seita, dies with his sister, Setsuko. The author had blamed himself for the death of his sister from malnutrition and had written the novel as a way to make amends to her.
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins, which tells the story of the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island."
  • Primary Colors, which used Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign as inspiration.
  • Edgar Allan Poe's "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" was in fact an account of the real-life murder of Mary Rogers, written and published while the crime was still in the newspapers and unsolved. In it Poe's detective Dupin learns of the crime solely from newspaper reports and presents his theory of how it was committed - which in fact is exactly what Poe himself did in writing the story.
  • In 1962, Kerry Wendell Thornley wrote a novel called The Idle Warriors about a strange young man he had met while in the United States Marine Corps. That young man's name? Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • The vast majority of Jack Kerouac's novels are simply retellings of things that happened to him and the other Beat writers, with the names changed (and some parts taken out, as the first draft of On The Road reveals). On The Road and Visions of Cody focus on his best friend Neal Cassady, The Dharma Bums is about his adventures with Gary Snyder, And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks (written with William S. Burroughs) was about a mutual friend who murdered a lover, and so forth. It became so well-known that the publisher insisted he use different character names in each book to prevent legal trouble for anyone involved, but they can still be decoded easily.
  • Compulsion, based on the Leopold & Loeb murder case, investigation, and trial. Told partially in first person - author Meyer Levin was a fraternity brother of Loeb's and really was that instrumental in catching them.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is often called a roman à clef. However, in this case the "key" is not that it's based on specific people, but that it's about homosexuality.
  • Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks which is, for all intents and purposes, the history of his family (with the author himself being Thomas Buddenbrook's son Hanno).
  • The first novel of Chilean writer Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits, is essentially a name-and-some-details-changed version of the history of her country and her family. This isn't the only novel of hers where she did that: The Infinite Plan is in the middle between this trope and Very Loosely Based on a True Story on regards the life of her second husband; and while the plot and characters of Eva Luna are original, the setting and backgrounds events are so heavily inspired by the then-recent history of Venezuela (the country Allende was living when writing the book) isn't even funny.
    • This trope is also played in a very meta way in Eva Luna: the soap opera Eva ends writing turns out to be the very book we're reading (which, by the way, is mostly her autobiography and the biography of her love interests), and her Transgender actress friend ends interpreting herself and her transition to great success and acclaim.
  • Dave Peltzer's autobiographical trilogy did this.
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses was popularly thought to be one of these. Several keys circulated around ancien regime France. Of course, since several of the characters are not very nice people, part of that was simple slander (though for what it's worth, the novelist Stendhal claimed that he had met the woman who inspired Mme. de Merteuil when he was a child and she was an old, old lady.)
  • Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here is a weird mix of reportage and total madness. The stuff about a family of Canadian Jewish bootleggers who got rich during Prohibition and then became philanthropists? Based very, very closely on the real-life Bronfman family. The stuff with the Franklin expedition's secretly Jewish doctor and sole survivor, the faked death in a plane crash, the mystic ravens? Not so much.
  • The Making Of The Goodies Disaster Movie inverted this, revolving around a totally fake story but starring real people without names changed. The back of the book did a Dragnet-parodying disclaimer: "The story you're about to hear is true. Only the facts have been changed, to make it more interesting."

Live-Action TV

  • Many police procedurals, starting with the archetypal Dragnet. Other examples include some of Jack Webb's other series, such as Adam-12, although that often drifts into Very Loosely Based territory.
    • Modern day procedurals often keep the criminal's real name (if convicted). Which makes for a crappy protection as simply googling the murderer's name will reveal the real name of his victims.
    • Hilariously enough, TV Guide once quoted (during the run of the short-lived reboot series) a producer from Dragnet as saying that he told the writers to just make a story up, and chances were that something like it happened somewhere.
  • McGee in NCIS writes books falling into this trope.
  • It's widely implied that Temperance Brennan in Bones does this, too.
  • On Barney Miller Harris's book "Blood on the Badge" was based on his experiences as a NY cop. He got all his colleagues to sign waivers, but he didn't bother with an Ambulance Chaser that he had occasional dealings with and who was in the book. When the lawyer found out about the book he sued Harris for defamation (or something) and bankrupted him.
  • Absolutely Fabulous
  • The Star Trek: Voyager episode "Author, Author" deconstructs this by having the Doctor create a roman à clef holo-novel with himself as the hero and thinly disguised versions of his shipmates as the villains.
  • Entourage is based on Mark Walberg's metoric rise to fame and notoriety.
  • Generation Kill uses this on occasion; while most of the protagonist Marines are known by their actual names, a couple of the less competent officers are referred to only by their nicknames. Captain America, Kasey Kasem, and Encino Man are probably the best examples (they were never named in the original book either, in a specific attempt by the author to avoid having them be targets later).
  • The characters of Ron and Mark on Parks and Recreation are loosely based on real people whom the creators met while researching the show. Notably, the person who inspired Ron was a woman, if you can imagine (like Ron, she was a Libertarian who didn't believe in the mission of her own job).
  • The 50's sci-fi show One Step Beyond was allegedly this. In many cases the veracity of the strange plots of the episodes can actually be confirmed.



The crimes you are about to hear have all been specially committed for this program.




"Everything that happens in the play actually occurred in Cyrano’s life except what many now remember about the story: his unrequited love for Roxane"

  • Max Frisch's play Andorra is quite obviously not set in Andorra, but rather in another small mountainous country, namely Frisch's homeland Switzerland.