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I'm writing a historical fiction based on a historical tragedy where many people died. It's a very specific setting and situation, but I'm not using the names of any of the real people involved in the incident and making up fictional characters.

I'm trying to do my research to the best of my abilities. I'm planning on presenting the tragedy as it is: a tragedy, affecting very real people who had real lives. As I'm delving further into researching the people this tragedy affected, I'm also beginning to learn that these were real people, and it could be potentially disrespectful to any of the real survivors of this event if I made up my own fictitious characters about this event.

I've come up with four ways to go at this:

  • Making up a fictional place/event based heavily on this event (I don't love this idea, as one of my original motivations for writing this novel was to spread awareness and to face our ugly history.)
  • Scrapping the plot altogether.
  • Writing a sort of biography instead of writing historical fiction.
  • Keeping everything as is.
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    If it wasn't morally acceptable, than Titanic wouldn't have been the first film in history to gross more than a billion dollars.
    – hszmv
    Sep 26, 2023 at 13:21

4 Answers 4

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The setting of a work of fiction has no moral implications. Creativity is an expression of art and art has no morality.

How you treat your subject can certainly have moral dimensions, but it gets really complicated. Say you wrote about the killing fields of Cambodia, that wouldn't be moral or immoral. Even if it was a loving tribute to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were insane zealots that murdered millions of Cambodians, I don't know if it could be strictly considered immoral. If your main character was one of Pol Pot's young children, they'd necessarily have a very different view of their daddy then how the world views one of the most accomplished mass-murders in history.

Point of view and context dominate that analysis. It can be very easy for someone to say 'That's immoral,' then list the reasons they think that. But, when it comes to art, its a work of imagination. It exists outside morality. It can be good art or bad art, but that is subjective. It can be universally acclaimed or derided, but that doesn't make it moral or immoral, it just means that it probably touches on some basic truth of the human experience.

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Yes, if we think about it from the perspective of the survivors and the relatives, writing such a work is very much questionable. If I had been the victim of a tragedy, would I want someone to write a book about me? Certainly not!

And the fact is that this might even be illegal, depending on your jurisdiction. People have the right to control, as Wikipedia phrases it, "the commercial use of their identity". That is why film studios buy the rights to someone's story before making a film of it.

Now some events, like 9/11, involve so many people that you won't be infringing on anyone's personality rights if you make up fictional characters who might have been involved in it, and if you are respectful in your narrative few of the survivors or relatives will feel offended by your story. In fact it is very likely they won't even take note of it among the many documentaries and fictionalisations out there.

So, the more people were involved in some tragedy, the less "immoral" any single retelling of it will probably feel. No one considers it unacceptable to write a story about the drug trade, for example, no matter how far from reality your story might be.

The same goes for historical distance. Once everyone involved and their immediate relatives have passed away, there aren't any people who could be hurt by your retelling. Their community might find your book disrespectful, but even that fades when a century or more has passed.

Legal aspects aside, the more recent the event and the fewer the victims, the more I would fictionalise it. I would have absolutely no qualms at all writing a story about someone who had lived in the 19th century. But I would append my narrative with an account of what was historical fact and what I had made up.

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I don't know.

I have an idea for a story set during the Sioux Wars, in which a family related by adoption are involved in conflicts from the Spirit Lake Massacre in 1857 to the Great Sioux War in 1876.

Naturally a lot of historic persons will be in the story, and a number of the fictional characters will be based upon historical persons that persons knowledgeable about the Sioux wars will recognize.

And I could write several paragraphs describing the relationships between fictional characters in my story and historic persons, including many who were killed.

George MacDonald Fraser wrote a series of novels supposedly to be the memoirs of the fictional Harry Paget Flashman, a rogue who is involved in many 19th century military conflicts, including many bloody battles where hundreds or thousands are killed.

Even though Flashman is a coward, he manages to get a reputation as a military hero. At the Battle of Balaclava Flashman is forced by circumstances to participate against his will in the 3 main British actions, the Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

When Flashman takes part in the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842, there is a brief scene with Flashman, a fellow officer named Vincent, and a little Indian girl. Vince was a real officer who survived, and mentioned that scene (without Flashman of course) in his book about the war.

In one book Flashman escapes from the battle of Isandhlwana on January 22, 1879, in which thousands on both sides were killed.

Victorian novelist H. Rider Haggard wrote a number of novels about adventurer Allan Quatermain, who was more or less inspired will life adventurers like Frederick Selous and Frederick Russell Burnham.

In Finished (1917) Allan Quartermain is one of the few white survivors of Isandhlwana.

Haggard also wrote The Witch's Head (1885) in which the protagonist also is one of the few white survivors of Isandhlwana. He joins a unit of mounted colonial volunteers that is wiped out in the battle. The commander of the unit and his 14-year-old son are both killed. Where did Haggard get the idea for a father taking his 14-year-old son into battle and them being killed? That happened at the Battle of Hlobane 28 March 1879. And Haggard was personally acquainted with that family. So he wrote about fictional characters being killed based on the real deaths of people he knew.

A lot of movies are based on on historical natural disasters.

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Fiction based off a historical event is perfectly fine. Of course, there is a possibility of a problem if the real people you write about are still alive. But, if you do your research, to show the tragedy how actually I don't see how it could be a problem.

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