“Hiding” Won’t Protect You From a Libel Lawsuit – Just ask John!

“Hiding” Won’t Protect You From a Libel Lawsuit – Just ask John!

I’m not an attorney and this is not legal advice. For information on your situation, consult with an attorney.


Today, I’m introducing you to John. John is a funny fellow – a good writer with quick wit. And, while he works at an almost-minimum-wage job, he’s also very intelligent…about some things.

John rented a house next door to Stan, a megalomaniac whose sole job in life was to make everyone else miserable. As John interacted with neighbors, and with Stan himself, he was at times amused and, other times, furious.

Stan would report anyone to the homeowner’s association for even the smallest infraction, which would lead to yellow tickets on people’s mailboxes. Whenever anyone saw a yellow ticket, they knew that Stan had made a phone call. One string of Christmas lights out? Yellow ticket. Your new front door doesn’t match the old paint on your house? Yellow ticket. Didn’t get around to mowing last weekend because you had the flu? Yellow ticket. Lots of cars in front of your house for your annual Fourth of July party? Yellow ticket.

More than that, Stan enjoyed screaming at his wife outside of their house. Sometimes, he even pushed her. Lord only knows what happened behind Stan’s pristine, perfectly matching front door. That poor, belittled woman constantly walked with her head down, using tiny footsteps like she expected someone to jump out of a bush to scare her. John felt very bad about Stan’s wife. Thank goodness they didn’t have any kids!

If neighborhood children got too close to Stan’s line of grass by the sidewalk, he would scream at them from his front stoop. If the garbage men dropped a small piece of paper on the street while doing their jobs, there was hell to pay. If someone walking their dog even got close to Stan’s yard, he would bark furiously at them.

Once, Stan’s pool drained overnight and he threatened to sue his next door neighbor, who had contractors digging in his own backyard for a plumbing issue.

After several months of this disturbing behavior, neighbors didn’t bother calling the homeowner’s association about Stan. When they saw him abusing his wife, they’d call the police. And, that just made Stan’s behavior worse. One day, Stan didn’t come home and word around the neighborhood was that he’s been arrested for drunk driving. Apparently, he had a history of convictions so he wouldn’t be coming home any time soon. Stan sentenced to 6 months in jail, and was ordered to attend AA meetings and receive anger management counseling.

John had such a large collection of disturbing memories about Stan that he decided to write a humorous novel about a suburban neighborhood that had a tyrant wreaking havoc on everyone, and who gets his come-uppance in the end. The copyright page said it was fiction…but it wasn’t.

John was very proud of his book and he landed a publishing contract. As soon as it hit the market, he mentioned it on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. And, not two weeks later, John received an email from a law firm. Stan was going to sue him.

You see, Stan’s wife was on Facebook as well. A kindly neighbor felt bad about how John portrayed her in his “novel.” Stan’s wife told Stan about it and now both of them were suing John for libel, invasion of privacy, and a host of other things (probably hoping at least one of the accusations would “stick” in court).

John FREAKED OUT! He was a single man renting a small home. His book income was negligible since he was a first-time, unknown author. His job at the local office supply store couldn’t pay for an hour with a libel attorney, much less an entire lawsuit, and a potential judgement against him. He HAD written about Stan. There was no question about it.

So, what did John do? He decided to move. That’s right. He got a UHaul, packed it after dark, and was just GONE. He figured that, if the process server couldn’t find him, he’d be safe.

Wrong, John!

The only way to “hide” from a lawsuit is to leave the country, or go completely off-grid, which is difficult these days, if not impossible. One credit card transaction (he would need to buy gas to get to his final destination) could lead to John’s whereabouts. Also, John would need a job once he got settled again and his employer would require a valid ID with a current address. John would need a bank account because most employers do direct deposit now. What were his chances of finding a cash-only position? Nil to none.

While it’s fine to loosely base your characters on real people you have known, there are limits you should consider to protect yourself from legal liability. For example, I saw a man dressed all in red with a white beard, sporting shorts and a tank top that rode above his bulbous belly button. I included him as a character in one of my short stories. I don’t know him. He doesn’t know me. There are probably thousands of portly, bearded men who like red clothes in this country, and who have outie belly buttons. And, since my short story was entirely fiction, none of them could sue me. I often make notes of the characteristics of strangers I see when I’m running errands or eating out. Some people are just so darned interesting that my imagination can’t even compare…

Here’s what John should have done:

1. Changed Stan’s gender.

John should have turned Stan into a female. Let’s now call her Clarice because using a name similar to Stan, like Jan, could provide readers with a clue. That would be dumb. Changing the gender of someone you’re basing a character on is a great way to hide the person’s real identity. But, that’s not all you should do!

2. Create entirely fictional scenarios.

Remember, Stan was a neighbor who complained about people’s homes, yards, and vehicles. John could have claimed that Stan, I mean Clarice, was a co-worker instead who complained about her colleagues desks, violations of the company dress code, smelly burnt popcorn in the lunch room, and even their higher paychecks. The “victim” in the story could have been a subordinate of Stan (oops – I mean Clarice) who endured constant emotional abuse at the hands of the supervisor. And, instead of making the victim a total pushover, John could have included stories about anonymous practical jokes played against Stan (Arrrrgh!! Clarice!!) by the abuse victim.

Come to think of it, I can think of far funnier scenarios with office politics than I can with a neighborhood!

3. Change the location of the story.

John’s story featured Stan living in a neighborhood in the exact same city. His book described melting asphalt in the summertime, and the beach nearby. John should have moved his characters to a place up north – far, far away from the actual location of the events that transpired. Snow, mountains, etc.

4. Use a pseudonym.

After all of the changes above, John probably wouldn’t need a pseudonym at all but, if he had any inkling at all that his characters might be recognized, he should have used a pseudonym, opened up social media accounts under that name, and used those to promote his book.

I know that writing can be fun (even daring!) when using real people as characters in your book. But, wouldn’t life be infinitely more peaceful (and affordable!) for you and your family if you took simple steps to protect yourself from a lawsuit?

That said…

Some authors are tempted to write what they want, and to hell with anyone who doesn’t like it. Trust me – if you do that, your bank account will drain faster than Stan’s pool.

Disclaimer: John the author is a fictional character comprised of many authors I have met over the years. Stan is a fictional character loosely based on several people I have known over the years. Neither one represents one person. The events in this story are based on stories I’ve heard over the years – some by people I knew, some I didn’t. Really! I swear!!

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