Nonfiction writers often want to include a story featuring someone who, in their eyes, played a villainous role at some point in the author’s life. The writer wonders if changing the name is “enough,” or they further disguise the subject by using a different gender, city, job title, or time frame.
What if the person they want to expose as a bad hombre is no longer alive—is it fine, then, to write about them?
There are two main considerations: matters of conscious and matters of lawsuit risk. Only the author can come to terms with what they feel okay about making public. Typically, the conflict is that the author is committed to writing a meaningful book and being candid, willing to shine a light into dark shadows, and being personally vulnerable—all necessary to craft a good memoir, for example.
With regard to lawsuit risk and CYA considerations, let’s first look at these related definitions:
SLANDER: a verbal false statement about someone (during a conversation, media interview or speech)
LIBEL: whether in hand writing or digitally, any written false statement about someone is libel
DEFAMATION: when a false statement results in damage or injury to the character of the person the
false statement is about.
When you include in your book (or anywhere) statements presented as fact about another person, don’t
mess with the truth. Notice that the legal terms all have the word “false.” So, truth is your best defense.
Just because someone doesn’t like what you wrote about them and may claim “defamation” because
they are embarrassed does not mean they have any grounds to win a law suit, supposing they would
invest the considerable amount of time and money to pursue one. Actual “damage” as a result of your
writing has to be proven.
You can’t take this as legal advice, please, but if I were you, I would not withhold pertinent truths which
are integral to your story. The main test to use is to write it, swallow it, and see how it digests within
yourself. If you get heartburn, go back and rewrite it a slightly different way that feels better to you.
Of course—consult an attorney who knows about intellectual property and such if you have any
concerns. This article is not intended as legal advice.