How Should You Write About Real People?


Photo credit: chloemiriam via / CC BY

A blogger asked: “How can I tell true stories about people if the stories don’t paint them in a positive light?”

I was tempted to answer with Anne Lamott’s quote: “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

But flippancy, while entertaining, doesn’t help solve the dilemma. I write mostly nonfiction so this is a question I answer regularly in my work. My answer is this: It depends on what you’re saying and why. It’s not as simplistic as tell the truth when it’s pretty and write fiction if it’s ugly. In my parenting book, “Raising Amazing Children While Having A Life of Your Own,” I quote a bevy of experts — real people who have raised children and lived to tell the tale. I share some names but first names only, as I checked with people and that was their preference. I was saying mostly good things (hey, no one is perfect, some parents make mistakes!) but even so, mostly anonymous felt right and enabled me to say both positive and negative without much embarrassment on anyone’s part. I wanted the book to help parents with practical suggestions. That was the goal, not to judge anyone’s parenting.

In “Tales From The Family Crypt,” my memoir about our wildly dysfunctional family, I researched legalities and chose to disguise identities to a certain extent. I examined my goal and concluded I wasn’t using my writing as a weapon of vengeance(not a healthy choice). I didn’t use anyone’s real name. But I did publish under my own name so it wasn’t a stretch for people who knew my family to know who was who in the story. But no other reader could tell who these people were and the folks who know the family already knew much of the story. However, that didn’t stop the psycho siblings from trashing me on Amazon and hiring a lawyer to sue me. Neither of those actions worked well for them. And, I already knew our estrangement was permanent so, honestly, I didn’t care what they thought and I believed (and this has been confirmed many times by the positive reviews on Amazon) my story would be helpful and supportive to people fighting similar battles in their families.

In my blog, the question is ongoing. I’ve written about friends but never share their names unless I’m 100% sure they’ll love what they read. It’s a gray area. I have a friend currently battling metastatic cancer with an awful prognosis. I could blog daily about how much I’ve learned from watching her live life heroically in the face of this onslaught of horror. I know her story could help others but it’s a story I don’t tell because, while I know she doesn’t read the blog, if she found out about it I know she’d be embarrassed by my shining a light on her most private and intimate fight. It’s a story I crave telling, as a writer and as a human compelled by her strength. It’s hard not to tell it but hurting someone I love even to help others is not a choice. Overall, if you write about real people and can check with them to see if it’s okay, go for it. If you can’t check, be prepared to accept consequences, which could include being sued!

So, like many aspects of life, writing true stories is a delicate balance of the pros, the cons, the blacks, the whites, and the grays. Ultimately, I advise others to write what they need to say but take a moment (or even better a few days) to weigh the pros and cons before hitting Publish.


14 Responses to “How Should You Write About Real People?

  • Hey Deb! Just learned about you and your books! Don’have amazing kids, or any kids at all for that matter, but I can sure relate to your dysfunctional family stories! I never hear about Anne Lamott’s view of writing about real people. I’m afraid I agree with her, and LOL with the subtitle of your family memoir. We’re just getting to that part in my family. Haven’t spoken to my sister in a year or two so far…

    • Absolutely a pleasure to meet you! I love your sense of humor; I can tell already. I’m sorry about your sister. Mine hasn’t spoken to me for 25 years and I sincerely hope you don’t reach that point. There was nothing I could do at the time to stop the runaway crazy sibling train but I surely have spent way too many hours pondering it. Don’t let this happen to you! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I look forward to more fun exchanges.

  • I write nonfiction, so this is helpful to read. I mostly write about myself, so I’ve never thought much about the legal aspect. I guess I better start thinking since the more I write, the more chance my writing will include others.

    • You probably won’t sue yourself so you’re safe as long as you only write about you. It’s when others creep into your stories that problems ensue! (pun intended). It’s not just a legal aspect to consider, truly. There’s sometimes a moral or ethical issue to consider. People have some interesting stories but they’re also quite complex subjects for writers!

  • I agree that it’s best to ask family and friends first if you are going to write about them on your blog. I usually do not name the full name either. Always use an initial.

    • Do they usually agree to be written about? I think my friends might be likely to vote no.

  • …being a visual artist , my objective is to create and express my experience through color and form… as all of us , my experience isn’t always pleasant, due in some part to the behavior of a//holes that I encounter from time to time . I am lucky , in the sense that the abstract forms most present in my paintings can be interpreted with much more variability than the more quantifiable written word . That said , I have no problem getting down and dirty , online , with whoever is speaking a//hole , from time to time… as a writer , I can only imagine how difficult it must be for you to hold back and not cross the line with the creeps in this world…I give them hell when I can…

    • I only participate in one visual art — mosaics and I love the ability to express myself without fear because, as you say, interpretations vary in the visual. And my art comes from a place of joy so most of the pieces I’ve produced thus far have been whimsical more than incendiary. I think it’s all part of my balance. I express myself in words because that is the medium I know best and feel most confident using. I can be comfortable in the dark side of wit and I feel surefooted in writing. In the visual arts I’ve not yet called upon any dark or depth. I think I’m more at home in bright color and light. I’m pretty lucky to have time to engage in both. So far, it’s kept me reasonably sane and I’ve not had to spend boatloads of money on therapy. (Although I’m sure some who know me think it would be money well spent. )

  • I read and enjoyed Crypt. I write what I want and change names. And some details. If they wan to to claim to be a loser, who am I to discourage them?

    • Thanks so much for reading my book. (And if you have the time to review it that would be lovely. If you already have, thanks so very much!) I am deeply grateful that you took the time to read it and really glad you enjoyed it. More big thanks for making me laugh out loud with “If they want to claim to be a loser who am I to discourage them?” Too funny. And, I have to say, when the siblings started commenting on Amazon exposing themselves, so to speak, I could hardly believe it. No one would have known it was them, why do that to themselves? Even their lawyer had to grudgingly admit he thought they were pretty crazy.

  • Great advice, Debby! Personally, I would always check with people first before using their real names.

    • I think that’s definitely the way to go, especially if you’d like to keep your friends and family!

  • If I am not complaining about something that person probably isn’t real lol. 😉

    • I guess that’s why some people have to write fiction in order to stay safe! Thanks, Jason, for stopping by and commenting.

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