Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

Full Bio →

Written by

UPDATED: Feb 5, 2020

Advertiser Disclosure

It’s all about you. We want to help you make the right legal decisions.

We strive to help you make confident insurance and legal decisions. Finding trusted and reliable insurance quotes and legal advice should be easy. This doesn’t influence our content. Our opinions are our own.

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

If it’s the truth, no. But to avoid a defamation lawsuit in the first place, change as many details as you can. For example, it does not fool anyone if the fictional character matches the real person in every respect except that his name is “Jones” instead of “Smith.” That could still harm Smith’s reputation and he may have grounds to sue. Use your creative license and change the hair, lifestyle, even the gender of the character. Many authors also combine characteristics (making a “composite character”), which often serves dramatic ends as well. You may protect yourself further by placing the familiar disclaimer at the beginning of your manuscript: “The people and events have been changed to protect the innocent, and any similarities to actual persons, either living or dead, are merely coincidental.” What also may help is that in most jurisdictions you cannot defame the dead. A sufficiently historical piece may allow you more freedom to write the scintillating details. Of course, if you are writing a nonfiction expose, you have the opposite burden–to make every statement truthful and accurate.

It may not hurt to consult with an experienced libel and slander attorney if you are not sure about the relative risks involved in your literary undertaking.