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The Spy is a Netflix series about Israeli spy and hero Eli Cohen. In a recent interview, Eli's widow Nadia expresses great dissatisfaction with the series: a lot of changes were made, ostensibly to "add drama", that in her opinion diminish him. She also expressed dissatisfaction with the casting of Sasha Baron-Cohen as Eli because of his record as "a clown" (her words), and she was deeply hurt by the whole thing. (Source in Hebrew)

The thing is, Shasha Baron Cohen stated that he wanted to play Eli Cohen because Eli was an awesome hero. And the director was drawn to the material because Eli was an awesome hero. I'm sure the last thing they wanted was to give his widow pain. What they wanted was to glorify his name.

That made me wonder: writing a fictionalised story based on real events or real people, where the relevant people or their relatives might still be alive, how does one avoid causing pain? Note, this question is not about legal aspects, but about ethical and human aspects.

In particular, there's a fantasy story in the back of my mind, rather inspired by Eli Cohen's life. The reason I'm drawn to this material is the same as for the others - Eli was as awesome as they get. So the last thing I'd want is to give his widow any pain. But at the same time, the story I want to tell is my story, fiction, not "an official biography".

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    Why use real names? You can just as well write a scenario based on this whole situation with fictional characters and fictional names in fictional places. No need to bring in real life drama into the mix at all. – Totumus Maximus Sep 26 at 10:11
  • @TotumusMaximus That's a fair point. If I'm writing urban fantasy, I can change the character's name, but it would be a "thinly disguised substitute". And sometimes I can't change the name - imagine a story set in modern UK, involving HM Queen Victoria II - that would set my story in an alt universe, something I might not want. If I'm writing high fantasy, changing the name is expected, but even so - the real story is well know, the inspiration is easily recognisable. I can name him whatever I like, he'd still be Eli Cohen. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Sep 26 at 10:26
  • @Galastel Indeed. A good example I can think of is The Master, which (to me at least) was quite obviously inspired by Scientology, despite the names being different. – JBentley Sep 26 at 11:50
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    Just ask the actual Patch Adams, who reportedly hated the movie made about him. (For one thing, they took the story of a colleague of his, a real person who was actually murdered by a patient, and changed his name and gender just to give Patch a tragic love interest in the story. There's taking liberties and then there's just straight up disrespecting the memory of an actual murder victim just to check a box in the "Things a Movie Must Have" list...) – Darrel Hoffman Sep 26 at 13:53
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By inviting the relevant people (or their families) to your creative team.

Many books and movies are made "with the cooperation of" so and so. This can mean a single interview, or just permission to to use certain materials, or it can involve multiple interviews or bringing in the person to the set (if filmed).

In other cases, the relevant person, or a representative, is actually employed by the production company. Or a co-writer of the book.

There are many ways to do this. But it's not done all that often. Why? Because you lose creative control. When Netflix made The Spy they probably really didn't want to cause offense. But they also weren't going to close down production or leave themselves unable to make the changes they felt were important to make.

This is the tradeoff:

  • If you go out on your own (either literally on your own or a group of 100 writers, editors, producers, directors, etc, backed by a huge corporation) you can made your work any way you choose, but you probably will upset at least some of the real life people your work is about (or their loved ones).
  • If you work closely with the object of the work and/or her/his family, you will get their buy-in and be less likely to offend someone (though you probably still will) but the process will take longer, will be more expensive, and you might not get the results (or the audience) you desire.

How you do it is up to you. In the case of your example, they might say they didn't want to do anything but pay homage, but they're lying. I mean, sure, that may be one of their goals. But their main goal is to make the show a success and make their audience happy. If they can do that without hurting the family, great. If not, oh well.

As a sole author, you can choose to be more collaborative with your subject (and family) and it won't necessarily cause problems. It will probably strengthen your work. But really, that's the only way to do it if not causing offense to them is your main aim. Give them a seat at the table.

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You don't. Turning a life into drama will almost certainly cause pain to those who remember that life. Life is more subtle than drama. Drama needs a definite shape that life lacks. That is why we value drama: it gives a shape to human experience that our pattern-seeking brain craves but cannot find in ordinary experience. But in doing so it simplifies, heightenes, rearranges, and makes its subjects either lighter or darker than they are in reality.

There is a reason that the news refers to its product as "stories". It twists the complex and inconclusive reality into a simple and conclusive drama that is easy to digest and takes sides on. Drama is how we want the world to be, not how it is. Drama is the world we can get our simple inadequate brains around, not the incomprehensive reality we actually live in.

Make a real life into a drama and it will either work as a drama and offend those who knew the real life, or it will suck as a drama and bore everyone else.

There is a very good reason that books routinely deny any depiction of any person living or dead, even the ones that most they most obviously portray. It is not just to avoid liability, though that is the heart of it, it is to distance them from the reality on which they comment, but which they cannot pretend to fully portray.

  • This answer is way too black or white. "Either you will offend or it will be boring". You can't just slot every real life drama ever made into such a simplified model. There is plenty of room for any permutation of offensive/non-offensive and boring/interesting. Particularly when you factor in the level of involvement of the relevant people per this answer – JBentley Sep 26 at 11:48
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    I don't think it is too black an white. It does expose a general truth about stories; why and how they won't collide entirely with life. It lacks a specific solution to Galastel question, but it is a valid point of view that reframes the question entirely. – Reinstate Monica. Sep 26 at 12:47
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    There is a always a chance that no actual people will be offended when you turn their lives or the lives of their loved ones into drama. Perhaps all the people involved are sophisticated enough to understand what is involved in creating drama. It is possible, for instance, that no one in the royal family is offended by "The Crown" (thought they would have ever right to be), because they are sophisticated enough to understand how drama works. But there is no process that will produce drama that is guaranteed not to offend those involved or concerned. – user16226 Sep 26 at 12:55
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It's impossible to write anything about anyone at all without offending someone, potentially.

Say you're writing something positive about a person, let's call him X. Now, X has a detractor named Y who seriously, seriously, dislikes X.

She's likely to be offended by whatever you write about X that's not offensive to X himself. And maybe the reverse is also true.

And that's just 2 persons. It gets worse when religious groups are involved. Or entire countries. Write something positive about say Chang Kai Check and the PRC government is not going to like it at all.

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You either write a biography, as accurate as you can, as respectfully as you can, or you write a clearly fictional story that is as different from its inspiration as you can make it.

Do not try to do this half way. That way lies pain and law suits.

From your question, it seemed that you want to write fiction. Then do just that. The best way is to get inspiration from multiple sources and mix them up. If that is not an option, you should at least change anything that can be changed without losing the point you want to make.

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