Acceptable Ways to Change Identity in Non-Fiction

What do you do if you’ve sensitive information about individuals or locations that you need to have in your non-fiction story, and yet you’re worried about lawsuits or giving away details that might expose that individual or location to prosecution of even violence. Well, the world of non-fiction has long provided conventions that writers can use to avoid incriminating identifying information. These can include (in no particular order):

  1. Changing the individual’s name, and if necessary age. It is not generally considered proper to change the sex and race. However, it is entirely appropriate not to assign sex or race. For instance, an investigator can be called “L.” throughout and no instances where a “he” or a “she” is required in a sentence need to be used. If the individual’s race is an essential component of the story—that the workers relate to the investigator because he is black, for instance—then other identifying characteristics would have to be blurred so that the investigator is not compromised.
  2. Changing the individual’s body size, color of hair and eyes.
  3. If the location or property involved is easily recognizable from descriptions, changing its location or features of the property.
  4. For ease of telling a story or disguising individuals, create composite characters.

It is not generally acceptable to change the action involved: in other words, going undercover in a chicken slaughterhouse can’t become breaking into a laboratory. The reader needs to feel that they are being provided with the essential truth of what happened and that the characters’ actions and reactions were accurately reported. The author must tell the reader whether individuals, places, or other identifying features have been changed, and why.

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