Skip to main content

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

When penning your memoir, it can become hard not to focus on the legal particulars. Here, Brian A. Klems provides direction for using real names as you write.

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

(Memoir Writing: Legal Issues You Need to Know)

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.”

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

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.

Memoir 101

While writing a book-length personal story can be one of the most rewarding writing endeavors you will ever undertake, it's important to know not only how to write about your personal experiences, but also how to translate and structure them into an unforgettable memoir. The goal of this course is to teach you how to structure your stories, develop your storytelling skills, and give you the tips, techniques, and knowledge to adapt your own life stories into a chronological memoir.

Click to continue.

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Glenn Boozan: On the Funny Side of Parenting

Emmy nominated comedy writer Glenn Boozan discusses how a funny piece of perspective turned into her new humor book, There Are Moms Way Worse Than You.

From Script

Adapting True Crime and True Stories for Television (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with writers and showrunners Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis (“Pam & Tommy”), Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah (“The Girl from Plainville”) who both have taken creative liberties in adapting true stories for a limited series.

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.