Avoiding the Risks of Defamation

November 1, 2017 by Evan Braun

One of the most common types of books undertaken by inexperienced authors, or first-time authors, is the memoir. Memoirs are an excellent starting point into the literary world because they already come with a fully developed outline and story—the author’s own life. It’s also a lot easier for authors with minimal experience to portray themselves on the page than it is to get into the heads of fictional characters or people they don’t know well.

That said, there are some potential minefields in telling your own story. One of the most important areas to be mindful of is the way you portray other people in your life. For the most part, the other characters in your own life story are going to be interpreted sensitively and sympathetically.

But everyone has a few people in their lives whom they haven’t gotten along with. Ex-spouses, former girlfriends and boyfriends, friends with whom you’ve had a falling out, the boss from a job you got fired from, neighbours you’ve had disputes with… the list could go on.

In general, it’s a good idea to steer clear of talking about these types of people, and for the small acquaintances in your life it may be simple enough to avoid them.

However, sometimes a bad relationship is a key ingredient to telling your story openly and honestly. So what do you do when your book demands that you talk about these types of people?

You proceed carefully.

One of the things you need to think about is defamation. This may sound like a complicated legal term, but it basically comes down to a very simple idea: when you say something damaging about another person, it can harm their reputation. In other words, defamation laws exist to protect a person’s good name.

The last thing an author wants is for someone to come after them later and sue them for damages.
There are ways to avoid this. The easiest way is to change names in the book so that the reader doesn’t know specifically who you’re referring to when you write something about a person that could be taken in a negative light. Even better, you may want to change a number of identifying details about them so that astute readers can’t necessarily figure it out.

Although this fictionalizes some minor elements of your true story, it often protects yourself and other people involved.

Another key way to avoid causing other people reputational harm is to make sure that you’re sticking to verifiable facts. In Canada (except in the province of Quebec), truth is considered an absolute defence. If a claim can be proven, you’re typically not defaming someone by saying it. Beyond that, be clear at all times that you are writing from your own personal observations and experiences.

After all that, bear in mind that if you choose to make statement or reveal negative details about another person or organization, you should run your writing by someone (or many someones) with a cool head.

Even better, if you’re really worried, you could even consult a lawyer. Standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this blog post does not constitute legal advice!

Unfortunately, we live in a world where people can and do sue for reasons that may seem, on the surface, to be inconsequential. That’s why it’s essential to remain mindful of your words and the effects they have on others. With a bit of prudence, there’s no reason you should run afoul of defamation laws.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.