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I am writing a story (actually a fanfiction) which I am serializing on Archive of Our Own, a popular site for that type of written works.

Actually I planned out the entire plot for that story since September 2023. So now, let's get into the problem here:

While so far, the Chapters' content are fairly tame, but Chapter 3, which is due to be released next week, is raising several red flags regarding its content:

In that Chapter, a black metal musician (left unnamed here) murders a pop singer, and then set fire to a church before proceeding to massacre the people inside it, which the numbers can reach to more than a hundred. All of these are witnessed by the main protagonist, who is a 14 year-old child heavy metal vocalist / guitarist.

At first, when those details are first conceptualized, I thought this won't cause that much controversy to how (celebrity) deaths are handled in the TV series South Park, but in the wake of the recent mayhems in Japan (including an earthquake, a plane crash resulting in the craft getting burned and killing its crew, and a house fire (can be or cannot be an arson)), I am worrying that this might trigger some of the grieving Japanese readers (who might be able to read English (my fic is in English)) and resulting in a lawsuit for slander / libel on the grounds of (possibly) schadenfreude. What is worse is that the story is also set in Japan, in the Tohoku (Northeastern) region, which had experienced one of the above mayhems years ago. Another concern is that the possibility of getting sued by the victims and / or people who are disgusted / traumatized by the actions of the early Norwegian black metal scene, Norwegian and / or Christian or not.

I might respond to complains in Japanese regarding the subject matter of the matter because I know a bit of that language; but dealing with speakers of Nordic languages is a different can of worms to deal with since I don't understand / cannot learn those languages at the moment (but might in the future).

I am currently thinking up this way to mitigate any controversy that might arise from this: Writing a clear disclaimer at the beginning notes of that Chapter (text below), tag the fic with new tags indicating possible trigger warnings, and as a last resort, posting an apology expressing sympathy to the victims of the mayhem and that the Chapter's contents aren't meant to offend / laugh at their grief onto TwitterX (there are many Japanese users of the site).

(In addition, the fic has a disclaimer at the very beginning of it which said everything in that fic was fictional, regardless of resemblances to real-world entities and events)

But honestly, can I get sued for writing about some (fictional) event inside a work of fiction that still bears some superficial resemblance to a real-world tragedy, and whether what I am planning to do to tackle the problems that might arise from that upcoming Chapter is right? Thanks in advance!

P.S. Text of the disclaimer in that Chapter with questionable content (credit to my friend on Discord for this):

This chapter contains some sensitive subject matter that could affect those traumatized by the recent disasters in Japan. We apologize for any offense this may cause.

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  • South Park is developed for Comedy Central. Comedy Central has a large legal department. Comedy Central is frequently facing lawsuits, many of them over copyright issues. The plaintiffs are heavyweights such as Warner Bros. or Disney. No matter if you can legally do what you want to do, you might not financially survive a court case against similar opponents. For that reason, as a poor writer, I'd always avoid the possibility of getting sued and try to come up with my own stories instead.
    – Ben
    Jan 5 at 18:24
  • The problem is: Real events aren't copyrighted (what you mentioned is that Comedy Central frequently got into copyright infringement lawsuits). Getting sued for making fun of tragedies and getting sued for copyright issues are two different things. And PLUS, I am NOT making fun of the recent Japanese tragedies. Those details about an arson and murder in my stories are made up months before those incidents happen, and they are totally fictional. Jan 5 at 23:32
  • People own certain rights in the context of their lives. You cannot just make a movie or write a book about someone. For example, when a film studio wants to make a movie about what someone experienced, they buy life story rights from that person. So if you write a book or movie script about a real event, one of the people who were in that event might sue you for defamation, for invasion of privace, for infringing on their right to publicity and so on. I recommend that you educate yourself about this before you reduce the complex legal situation to "real events aren't copyrighted".
    – Ben
    Jan 6 at 7:49
  • There's usually no problem if you write about a large scale event such as a world war that involved many people and your narrative recounts the general experience that many people have had. But if you write about an event in which few people were involved and/or what the person does is unique, so that the people become identifyable, you are infringing on the rights of those individuals. There are countless cases were people have sued writers because they were the identifyable subjects of stories, and in many such cases they were successful and prints runs had to be destroyed.
    – Ben
    Jan 6 at 7:56
  • I've read your post several times, but I still fail to see the connection to the recent events in Japan, other than that the story is located there. Lots of stories feature tragic events that might trigger someone who experienced personal trauma. A trigger warning seems fair, but it doesn't seem like you're exploiting real tragedies.
    – Llewellyn
    Jan 9 at 19:25

2 Answers 2

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I am not a lawyer.

I do know that disclaimers are not "get out of jail free" cards. They are legally meaningless, when it comes to libel, or when it comes to copyright law.

That said, people write fiction set in actual wars and atrocities all the time.

The real question hinges on whether a jury (in the USA at least) would say your characters or setting is so specific that it could not be anybody except a specific person or town that takes offense.

This is why many authors writing about a corrupt town make up fictional town name and place, and make their characters distinct from any real life inspiration.

If any of your characters are recognizably based on real-life characters (especially to those real life characters) then you could be in trouble.

Are you thinking of an actual young heavy metal prodigy? Are you thinking of an actual black metal musician and an actual murder?

If so, you could be in trouble, because a knowledgeable reader might take your writings as slander and lies.

It doesn't really matter if you swear up and down that you didn't mean it, it was just bad luck. If the events happened before you published, you may be in trouble. (Obviously if the events happened after you published, you could not have copied them from the future.)

It is not a good idea to base any characters on real world figures that are still alive.

Further, to my knowledge, nobody can sue you because you stirred up their memories of bad times. But I am not a lawyer.

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    What if I conceptualize the details in my story that bear superficial resemblances to real-life events / tragedies LONG BEFORE those things happen? Will I be in trouble because of this issue, given the coincidental details to recent real-world events were actually conceptualized before those events are supposed to happen, and that we aren't expecting those to happen IRL in the first place? Jan 5 at 12:10
  • @PurgatorioChunagon Unless you can prove that timing in court, tough luck. Life can be stranger than fiction, or just as strange. Life is seldom fair. If the court just took your word for it, that would be everybody's defense -- Oh judge, I thought of this plot line when I was a kid in high school, it just took me thirty years to get it on paper! Civil court cases generally rest on convincing a judge or jury that you are telling the truth, while the lawyer for the person suing you is doing everything they can to point out the flaws and downright incredible coincidences in your story.
    – Amadeus
    Jan 5 at 19:33
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No. You won't. There is a whole group of tv shows that are called "ripped from the headlines" (Law and Order and it's spin offs are the best known, but CSI got some recognition.). In these cases, the crime of the week will often take the shape of a story that is in the news or recently in the news (depending on when the events happened, and the production lead time, this can be several months to a year after it happened, in which case the events are not raw, to a matter of days, in the case of shows like "South Park" which has a slew of episodes that satirize events that happened earlier in the week. In one famous episode, "Let's talk about last night" the show opened with an animated Barak Obama giving his victory speech after he won the 2008 presidential election, using actual lines from the speech. The real speech was given less than 24 hours to the South Park episode's airing, and given the plot of the episode was largely outcome neutral, the scenes were largely made twice with variants made for a McCain victory.

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