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I'm writing crime fiction. The current scenario is that I have a main character (late 20's) who is Algerian but the story is set in Chicago. He lives in the United States because, as a baby, he fled Algeria with his Uncle after his parents were killed. Rather than the cliche of say, a random car accident, I did some quick research and learnt there was a civil war in Algeria in the late 1990's - the timeline works for my character. To make it more authentic I zeroed in on specific massacres that occurred in different villages during that time in Algeria.

Eventually, my character will have a scene where he describes to another character in some level of detail that his parents were killed in their village during one of these massacres.

  • Is this disrespectful to the real victims?
  • Does it make it better if I only reference the Civil War and not pinpoint a specific massacre?
  • Does it make a difference if the victim count is up near 100,000 (the war), compared to 40 (village massacre)?
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    "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."--Oscar Wilde Jun 29, 2023 at 19:07
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    @SimonCrase Good old Oscar.-- I'd say it's morally wrong if it lacks respect. "I don't really care about the terrible history in your shithole, I just need an arbitrary backdrop for my character" repectless. Jun 30, 2023 at 15:04

7 Answers 7

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I wouldn't see it as disrespectful in and of itself. I would do some research into where refugees migrated to. That said, it is shedding a light on a piece of history that isn't covered in western media, which is always helpful to victims.

I would advise that you make a fictional village and take elements from several different events in the civil war to shape it, but you can acknowledge the real places in your own way (maybe he was mistaken as coming from another real village, or he remembers his parents talking about other real villages that were massacred). That way, you can highlight real tragedies while not offending survivors who live in these villages, which might be small and tight knit.

Should point out that James Cameron didn't seem to have any qualms when he made a romance film set on the maiden voyage of the Titanic... nor was there public outrage enough to keep the film from becoming the first to gross over $1 Billion dollars in its initial theatrical release ($1.84 Billion to be precise - it not only broke the billion dollar ceiling, it damn near did it twice). At the time of its release, it was the 5th film based on the tragedy, the first debuting in 1915... three years after the sinking.

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  • This is a great idea, thank you! I'll keep it vague and only refer to other villages in passing.
    – MikeS
    Jun 27, 2023 at 22:50
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    I think using a fictional setting isn't always necessary but could cause some anger if you don't. Whether you are happy with that reaction might be down to you. For example, I was slightly surprised after reading ''La ciudad y los perros'' by Mario Vargas Llosa that the college in which the novel is set is a real college. This led to copies of the book being publicly burned, but no doubt the notoriety helped him to become more well-known.
    – Tom
    Jun 30, 2023 at 14:16
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    @Tom Personally, I waffle in my fiction, which is more superhero speculative fiction in nature. If the setting is a large city, I prefer to use real cities to a "Metropolis" style fake city. If the setting is more rural, I tend to use fictional locations that are in part based on real places, but can blended to include features as needed.
    – hszmv
    Jun 30, 2023 at 14:23
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I don't think it was disrespectful, referencing brutal history is not. We cannot be expected to never reference the terrible things in history out of "respect".

I would consider it disrespectful to celebrate some kind of brutality, like some do the Holocaust, but it is not disrespectful for me to invent a character whose parents died in a German concentration camp.

I would not use the name of a real village. You can use the circumstances, but if you get too specific, then you are talking about a relatively small group of people, that can take offense, and in the era of social media, even a small group or one person may by chance get a lot of attention, and negative publicity for your fiction.

Someone may say "That story could only be about my father or something like that. Then you are left waving your hands and saying "No, no, it is just coincidence, I swear!"

There is a reason authors often set their stories in real countries or areas, but invent the town names, or street names, or even just addresses on real streets. I live in a city, I might set a story here, but I'd make up the street name and address.

Your other option is to never use the name of the village. For example, "When his village was attacked, ..." Always reference it as "his village", "the village", etc. And you can make references to some of the villages — He says, "It was worse than Tazrouk, worse than El Kala."

Stuff like that, for realism. But you don't have to be so real that you might inadvertently intersect reality and cause hard feelings.

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  • This is very helpful thank you. I'll keep it vague, refer to it as 'my village' etc., and just mention another real village in passing.
    – MikeS
    Jun 27, 2023 at 22:52
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    @MikeS Related: why place names are often redacted in fiction (perhaps I should update that post after reading some of the answers here). Jun 29, 2023 at 10:03
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    @MikeS +1 on your post. But there is the issue of not giving offense, I think. Like if your story requires a corrupt and brutal mayor, in modern times, you are impugning a living person. Or if you just need to make the town particularly unfriendly to outsiders. A fake town will do just fine. This is kind of the inverse of fictionalizing the names of real people, families and town folk. We don't want to suggest that some real small town in Kentucky, mayor, cops and all, is totally into cannibalizing the rare visitor. Hello, Stranger, you got here just in time for the big BBQ on Saturday!
    – Amadeus
    Jun 29, 2023 at 15:19
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    @KrišjānisLiepiņš Disclaimers like that do not insulate you against a lawsuit, they are not a defense if somebody files a lawsuit for defamation. Otherwise, an author could defame a real person using a character based on them, just changing the name, add on the disclaimer and get away with it. Disclaimers are intended to discourage people from suing, but they don't really protect you at all.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 30, 2023 at 23:02
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    @KrišjānisLiepiņš I cannot prove I did not know something. No amount of documentation can show that, I might just not have documented what I really did know, because I didn't want my documentation to be used against me. The best defense is to be vague enough that a specific person cannot be identified. The level of specificity it would take to identify a single person is just not necessary in fiction.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 7, 2023 at 13:53
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It's not inherently harmful to represent real tragedies in fiction; but it's good to think about what harm there could be if you do it badly. There is a common trap here of thinking only about "offense", but people being offended or feeling disrespected is only one kind of harm. A greater potential harm is misinformation or misrepresentation; you don't want your writing to seed misconceptions or prejudices about the people involved in that tragedy.

The main concern I would have is that you're writing about a real-life tragedy which is relatively obscure to your readers, and your readers are unlikely to see any information about this tragedy other than what's in your story. You have a responsibility to tell the true parts of the story accurately, particularly because any mistakes you make probably won't get corrected for most of your readers. So, do the necessary research to get those parts right.

You also have some responsibility to not mislead readers into mistakenly thinking that the fictional parts of your story are real. For example, if your story includes any real people (e.g. politicians or military leaders) then your readers will assume that any actions or motivations you write for those people are supposed to be real. Hence, if you write about a fictional action or motivation then the character should also be fictional. The same applies for details about events: if the event really happened then readers can easily assume that details about those events in your story are supposed to be accurate. This way if readers do go on to find other information about the same specific people or events, they are less likely to conflate those people or events with your fictional portrayals.

On the other hand, if you get this right then your story might help people better understand the real tragedy that your story references, which can be a positive outcome, and wouldn't be possible if you wrote about a fictional tragedy instead.

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  • Thank you kaya3, you've made some great points for me to take on board :)
    – MikeS
    Jun 28, 2023 at 22:45
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I don't think it's disrespectful, but opinions may vary. If you want to be safer, then potentially change the name of the village in question. (To avoid offending any living relatives / victims etc). You could also look at acknowledging the tragedy somewhere in the foreword or author's notes.

Really, it's about how you present the subject matter, and the overall tone of the book.

With crime fiction, I'd expect you're writing a relatively serious book, and won't be poking fun at it. Since this is your main character, I'd expect you to be presenting them at least somewhat sympathetically to the reader. This ties in with the massacre being shown with due horror and acknowledgement of its impacts.

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    Thank you. I think like with the other comments, I'll keep the village name vague and just refer to another real village in passing. It is a serious crime drama, but the reference to the Algerian Civil War is such minimal background info, I won't be delving into it any further than my character just giving his background story to another character, just to flesh his history out a little.
    – MikeS
    Jun 27, 2023 at 22:54
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    You have my vote for pointing that the tone is the key point here. One of the best books related to a tragical historical event I've read is Slaughterhouse-Five from Kurt Vonnegut about the bombing of Dresden in WW2. Definetly an anti-war book
    – Kaddath
    Jun 28, 2023 at 15:19
  • I'm glad you mentioned that @Kaddath, I've got that on my list of books to read. I might move it up to the top of the list.
    – MikeS
    Jun 28, 2023 at 22:42
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There's a certain thought direction that in fact feels that one is honoring the victims by "telling their story". Often in the form of a fictional character that is representative of various real victims. It could be argued that for example James Cameron is honoring the victims of the Titanic by showing what they went through, that countless holocaust stories are honoring the victims that died in that.

I feel there are a number of traps that one should look out for when attempting to do this (some of the other answers hint at some of these):

  1. Avoid clichés. One can tell only so many for example holocaust or "nasty Nazi" stories before they start to bore by their sameness (with all due respect). Each story should have something worthwhile telling that has not been told before.
  2. Multiple sides. For any war, including a civil war, to occur, there has to be two (or more) views that people feel so strong about that they are willing to kill or die for it. The victors usually determine which version becomes the popular narrative, but that is often stripped of nuance and depth. Not saying that you should, but if one can give a nod to the various views, this could serve to create a much richer story. Our film world would be poorer without e.g. the Oscar Schindlers, Von Stauffenbergs and even the human Hitlers.
  3. Facts. Get the facts right or be vague enough to not matter. Untruths, even unintentional, as well as perceived twisting to support a certain viewpoint, is not going to be well received by all, and will have its effect on your reputation.
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I personally do not think it is disrespectful. In fact, I strongly counter-argue that "white-washing" or avoiding the use of brutal and morally unjust historical tragedies within works of art worsens the problem that it is trying to solve, because it does not acknowledge the brutality that occurred, essentially "sweeping it under the rug". In order to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, we must be aware of them; to not validate their occurrences in historical works of fiction is akin to censorship in my opinion.

I personally feel that even the fact that you felt it was necessary to ask this question (and let me be clear, I am NOT blaming you, I am making a statement about our current cultural zeitgeist), shows how the fear of being politically incorrect has stifled free speech in the 21st century, when all one is doing is being factual, which is the point of historical fiction. People can read these events and understand that they were horrific. The influence on character development is also likely to be a negative influence, which further exemplifies the fact that these are mistakes that our civilisation must attempt to avoid in the future.

I have a similar opinion (and think that it is pertinent to your query) regarding the current culture of banning people with views with which the majority disagree (but a quiet and growing minority agree) from speaking on college campuses. If we do not let these people speak, then how are we ever able to debate their ideas and repudiate them? "Cancel culture", cancelling people from speaking on campuses, actually gives power to those who hold these beliefs, because it can make their followers believe that there is a conspiracy to stifle their voices, which may embolden them further to believe in farcical or harmful ideas.

Ultimately if a speaker is banned, this gives them tremendous publicity, and, (justifiably) a right to complain. Following this, they discuss their ideas within an echo chamber online, rather than in a University where they could easily be rationally challenged by the audience asking questions that demonstrate logical flaws present in the speaker's content and/or reasoning. I would not be surprised at all if these individuals enjoy being "cancelled", for these reasons. They get to claim that they are oppressed, and no one can challenge their ideas in a public forum.

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If you want to avoid being disrespectful, you should handle the topic with care. With that said, this is done all the time by professional writers and many of those works are fantastic and not frequently accused of being disrespectful.

Magneto from the X-men is a famous example and includes being a holocaust survivor in his back story.

The Kite Runner is an amazing book. While its not quite "background" since it happens in the book and there are events before it, many of the main characters in the book are shaped by the Soviet Union's military intervention in Afghanistan. The military intervention itself is only briefly touched on, but its impact on the lives, development, and personalities of the characters plays a major role in the later parts of the book.

If you want to avoid offending people, then handle these matters delicately, especially if the tragedy in question is still somewhat fresh. But they absolutely should be handled in fiction.

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