Think You Can’t Get Sued For Putting Real People In Fiction? Think Again.

You can’t protect yourself as a creator just by changing names — but here are 5 tips that could help

Janice Harayda
Lit Life

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Still from “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix
Still from the award-winning Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit” / Netflix

Writing teachers and coaches flinch when they hear certain words. In my case, they include, “I’ll just change the names.”

Those words usually come from someone writing a novel, short story, or screenplay inspired by real people or events. They’re a sign that the writer may need a reality check.

When I teach fiction writing, I focus on the basics of craft: plot, theme, setting, point of view, characterization, and structure. But I deal at least briefly with a related matter writers at all levels too often ignore: the legal issues they need to consider, especially libel.

An issue for more than Prince Harry

Even beginning writers tend to know you can be sued for libel if you write about real, living people in nonfiction, such as an essay or news story. Who hasn’t heard of a case such as Prince Harry’s recent lawsuit against a British tabloid he claims made false allegations about him?

What a lot of writers don’t realize is that you can libel someone in fiction. And you can’t protect yourself just by changing a…

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Janice Harayda
Lit Life

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.