Will I Get Sued if I Use Real Names in my Memoir?

Author:
Publish date:

Q: I am writing a memoir and need to know if I can use real names in the book. I am going to write about some terrible experiences and some don’t show people in a favorable light. Can I use their names? Also, how can I be sure to protect myself from any possible litigation? --Anonymous

A: Writing about real people in your life is tricky, especially if you cast them in a negative light. Once you put it into print there’s always a possibility of a lawsuit. Augusten Burroughs, rightly or wrongly, was sued by the family of his psychiatrist for Running With Scissors (the family accused him of making up events to make his book more marketable).

According to legal expert (and friend of “WD”) Howard G. Zaharoff, there are two rights you must respect: disclosure and defamation.

“The right to avoid disclosure of truthful but embarrassing private facts is the first right,” says Zaharoff. “For example, I am reading John Sandford's latest Prey novel, in which a well-known politician is accused of having sex with an underage woman. She offers proof that she had sex with him by describing two semicolon shaped freckles on his testicles. Unless they are relevant to an important and truthful account you need to tell, I would avoid that kind of disclosure.”

OK, I’ll give you a moment to get that mental picture out of your head. But you get the point. Don’t share negative or embarrassing information unless it’s absolutely necessary to your story. It can only hurt you. Back to Zaharoff:

“Second, U.S. law prohibits defamation, that is, oral or written falsehoods that hold the subject up to scorn or ridicule. Every negative statement you make about a living person must be true and, ideally, supported by evidence.”

Of course, if you say something so awful about a person you will always risk a lawsuit, particularly where your only support is your word. And, Zaharoff notes, that's a costly experience even if you ultimately win, and there is no guarantee you will.

So the real question is, How do you tell your story without risking any form of litigation? Disguise the names and biographical data and make sure that no one can identify the subjects from your description. Use a pseudonym if need be. And ALWAYS (it’s in all caps for a reason) talk with a knowledgeable lawyer first. A little cash now can save you a lot of cash in the future.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of
Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Friday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

Poetic Forms

Rannaigecht Mor Gairit: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the rannaigecht mor gairit, a variant form of the rannaigecht.

Weinstein_1:21

The Writer, The Inner Critic, & The Slacker

Author and writing professor Alexander Weinstein explains the three parts of a writer's psyche, how they can work against the writer, and how to utilize them for success.

Stottlemyre_1:21

Todd Stottlemyre: On Mixing and Bending Genres

Author Todd Stottlemyre explains how he combined fiction and nonfiction in his latest book and what it meant as a writer to share his personal experiences.

plot_twist_story_prompts_take_a_trip_robert_lee_brewer

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Take a Trip

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character take a trip somewhere.

Probst_1:20

Making the Switch from Romance to Women’s Fiction

In this article, author Jennifer Probst explains the differences between romance and women's fiction, the importance of both, and how you can make the genre switch.

Wrobel_1:20

Stephanie Wrobel: On Writing an Unusual Hero

Author Stephanie Wrobel explains how she came to write about mental illness and how it affects familial relationships, as well as getting inside the head of an unusual character.

who_are_the_inaugural_poets_for_united_states_presidents_robert_lee_brewer

Who Are the Inaugural Poets for United States Presidents?

Here is a list of the inaugural poets for United States Presidential Inauguration Days from Robert Frost to Amanda Gorman. This post also touches on who an inaugural poet is and which presidents have had them at their inaugurations.

precedent_vs_president_grammar_rules_robert_lee_brewer

Precedent vs. President (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use precedent vs. president with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 554

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a future poem.