How do I avoid legal repercussions for writing a story based on events in my life?

Mainly, I have experienced events that I would like to share with the world. These events are somewhat disturbing and would expose the truly spiteful side of an individual who has impacted my life in ways that have only made me stronger. I do not plan to focus on that individual, rather on the way my life was altered (and a big portion due to this individual's actions). This story would cover the struggle faced by women (by other women), culture and religion in the workforce.

Now that I have moved on, I continually recount my experience verbally and feel as though it would do better to spread the message and make an impact through the use of the written word.

How can I accomplish this?

[Edit: The legal repercussions I refer to include those from the individual, perhaps even the company that I worked for even though they are in no way at fault (except for having such an individual on their payroll).]

  • Can you clarify: are you talking about legal repercussions from the people you mention in your book, or from the authorities because of what you will reveal of yourself in your book? Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 16:57
  • Good question. I went ahead and updated the question. However, I should note, the individual themselves did nothing that could be deemed 'illegal' but plain immoral. Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 17:31

6 Answers 6


Before I give some suggestions, the best advice I can give you is speak to a lawyer directly about your personal situation. Unless there is one on the forum, I really wouldn't take any other advice as gospel, including what I'm going to say below. Also, legal issues will differ from country to country, so what's true in the US may not hold true in the UK (for example, if a book is published in the US and the UK, many authors and publishers are sued in the UK because of very favourable libel laws).

There is no substitute for good legal advice, so if you're serious about writing your work as a piece of non-fiction, pay for it. You won't regret it.

Having said all that, if you're afraid of repercussions from the individuals you mention in your book, I imagine the usual strategy is to change names, places, and appearances, at least enough so that they cannot easily be associated with the individuals in question. Also consider writing under a pseudonym. Girl With A One Track Mind was written with both of these strategies I believe. But, be warned, it can backfire when/if your name is leaked. The author of that book lost her career, and it deeply affected her personal life.

  • This is the first time I've ever posed the question (written or verbally). I find your answer to be quite helpful, however, where I can hope to find legal advice? I mean where do you find such a lawyer. Also, I think changing names, places and appearances (places, mostly) would take away some of the luster and realism, but I guess that's another question for the lawyer. :) Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 17:29
  • 1
    @timidlyunafraid - to find a lawyer in the US you could start with your local Legal Aid, if you've got one. Other than that, there's always Google.
    – justkt
    Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 17:35
  • Google, the yellow pages, something like that would work wonders. Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 19:40
  • In the US, you can also try to find the local Bar Association, describe your situation, and ask for a referral. Commented May 10, 2011 at 2:03

Besides getting legal advice, which is a sound move, I suggest you make it happen somewhere else.

I saw you reply that it would take some of the luster, but think of the possibilities: you can change the place entirely (say, another city or country), you could enhance factors that would help your message come through. You'd have to set up the atmosphere just right, and having an invented place, or a half imagined one, would help you: a much too familiar site for the story might make you trip over the descriptions, and or skip some details, just because of the deep familiarity.

I'd suggest changing even the industry of the company you work(ed) at, if possible, and the gender of some people involved. Names being changed should only be the beginning, in my opinion.

If there's delicate matters, and your lawyer does recommend changing names and other stuff, then the best you can do is leveraging the changes.

Remember, just the way the setting in which you lived helped your situations happen, so can the setting you create in the book help the character's situations happen... so you'd have to set them parallel enough to carry your message. And your message, which is born of these situations, is what I think is most important, and is what can be best transmitted.

  • 1
    Great advice, but wouldn't the drastic change require reclassification of the book's genre from nonfiction to fiction? Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 11:10
  • As in "Historial Fiction", such as Mario Vargas Llosa's "La Fiesta del Chivo", an excellent book which... well, sends the message it is intended to send. If the message is so important, then the means to make it go through can vary.
    – iajrz
    Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 13:45

Definetly suggesting that you talk to a lawyer, it's simply the perfect advice. Alternatively, make sure you do not defame anyone and an especially safe move would be to change the names entirely to not make the individuals identifiable.

If if everything you say is true and unaltered it can still cause messy trouble down the line.

Still, talking to the lawyers is the best idea.

  • Based on everyone's advice, I hope to write the story from beginning to end before I muster up the courage to see a lawyer (or anyone in the editing/publishing world for that matter). You mention that despite accuracy I could still ultimately face scrutiny at the legal level from the individuals I choose to document. However gory this may sound, and heck I'm willing to wait even after I'm long gone, would it help if I waited until they passed away? Couldn't the individual's family choose to pursue it? (I mean even if I alter the name, how many previous managers have I really ever had) Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 13:12
  • @timidlyunafraid: Under UK law you're right: you can't libel the dead.
    – A E
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 18:13

Short & simple: State only facts that you can prove and how that factual occurrence affected you; DO NOT give opinions or interpretations on the character and motives of the other person - not even through adjectives describing what you perceived the other's emotions or reasons to be, or what you thought about it, stick to the affects that provable factual occurrences had on you. If you let malice or thoughts of revenge rule what you write, you had better be prepared for the stick you will be hit with.


Here is how you can avoid legal repercussions when writing a non-fiction story based on events in your life:

  1. Don't libel anyone;
  2. Don't invade their privacy;
  3. Don't put them in a false light;
  4. Don't cause them emotional distress, either intentionally or negligently.

To know whether or not your manuscript blatantly does one (or more) of the above, you'll need to have a lawyer read it over and give you a legal opinion on whether or not you crossed the line. Of course, nothing can prevent your aggrieved ex-co-worker from still filing a lawsuit against you but at least you've done all you can to minimize the likelihood.

If your ex-co-worker was a well-known public figure then you are safer (at least in the U.S.) as the target of your writing would have to be able to demonstrate that you had actual malice towards them.

Worth reading author Terrance Blacker's thoughts on being read for libel.


As a publisher and editor, I'd place no restrictions on the DRAFT content of an ostensibly true autobio. It would be best to have you get everything you want to say down onto the page, which I could then cull and structure. That is, if I thought the end result would be a great read and that it would sell.

Clearly you wish to elaborate about negative events and how you feel about them. A subcategory of Nonfiction is Editorial, so you'll need a clear, easy to find, up-front statement that the book contains historical facts as well as your personal interpretation and opinion of those facts. A statement like this needs to be included in the "Approved to Print" FINAL. Also that the "opinions expressed are YOURS, not mine or any third parties used to publish." (if you go strictly with facts, it would make for a dry autobio-- any writer can collect facts and spill them back out in order -- your commentary makes up the heart and soul of a good life-story).

As for the possibility of libel because Person X, whom you intend to name, did Y and Z awful things to you during your time at Company A...especially the part about how Company A still exists. I'd be concerned about a libel suit against you from Person X, violating person X's privacy, a libel suit from Company A, so I'd simply change the names and add a note that I did so as in my capacity as editor.

Unless you can prove that Person X did Y and Z. Truth is bullet-proof against libel. In court, we'd need some sort of corroborating evidence (like an incident report from company A, a police report or a witness other than yourself and person X willing to be sworn in and corroborate "X did Y and Z to the author."

As for incriminating yourself, a) US citizens have a right NOT TO; you'd be giving up this right and I'd need you to sign a release form stating that I advised you of your rights and that you knowingly and willingly gave them up AND that myself and any 3rd party used to publish, distribute, market or sell your story is also released from any civil action from you. b) I cannot speak for the entire US (My familiarity in criminal and media law resides mainly with the California Penal Code, but other western locales are likely to be about the same): The only two crimes I can think of for which there is no statute of limitations are PC 187 and 188 - 1st and 2nd degree murder.

The more brutally honest and graphic you are, the better the read and the MORE I'd want to publish all of it. If I couldn't persuade you to use pseudonyms for the chapter in question, I would have to route the copy to "Legal." (A lawyer specializing in US Media Law).

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