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What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
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Ethics. That’s rather a philosophical question, but I think we can all agree that it is a matter of justice, fairness, and respect. Therefore, historical figures should be viewed in a respectful manner–respectful to the truth first and the culture they belong to second. When you’ve reached an idea about both these things, remember that it is ultimately your reputation that will be on the line, not that of the historical figure. Once you have a firm grasp of that and a healthy respect for consequences, you should fair pretty well.
That all depends, of course, on the nature of the historical figure–meaning the reputation they have within the cultural group they belong to. If you’re talking about someone from ancient times of which little is known, then you will have to take license to fill them out for the reader. The older the time period in which they existed, the less likely you are to have a complete picture of the individual. A great deal will be forgiven and not given another thought. That said, do not try to paint Caligula or Nero as victims of negative press. Of course you can, but I would advise against that. They were so rotten that it is still far too soon to attempt to revise them for public consumption.
When writing a historical figure that is charged with politics and deep cultural connection, tread carefully–whether you’re a member of the community or not. There will be expectations from readers. Those expectations should, generally speaking, be respected, because they come from a place of values. It can cause you to loose your reputation as a writer if you handle the subject poorly.
Do your research on your chosen historical figure. Do as much as you can. Over research them. You should feel like you lived alongside that history when you’re done. There should be a sense of personality. If they’re a major character, you will want to know what brand of underwear they preferred and how they took their toast.
No, really, I mean it. If you want to be taken seriously as a historical writer, you’re going to have to do the historical end of it. That’s the facts. Certainly, you can decide to just use historical figures as set dressing, but that shows. It’s sort of like name-dropping. To what purpose do you need to mention them at all if they don’t move the plot along?
The only reason Abraham Lincoln showed up in Blue Honor is because he was overseeing the US Civil War. Otherwise he may have had a glancing mention in some conversation or letter. Other historical figures that come up are there because they were present with Joseph and the other boys during their service: commanders, leaders, colleagues… The same is true for OP-DEC. The only reason you meet familiar Nazi’s is because Carsten drags you right into the middle of their party, and the stakes had to be raised on Claire. You can bet I knew them well. It felt terrible! I was better able to write the tension because of it.
That brings me to the unsavory end of research: having to study bad people and stomach the things they did in detail. I grew up watching the documentaries. I still watch them. I watch the movies and television, too. I am steeped in World War II history. (My heart just broke the other day when National Geographic advertised their piece on The Last Voices of WWII. I can hardly believe they’re nearly all gone. I grew up with them all around me.) I remember studying the Klan in undergrad and how hard it was to get through the material, to the point I pitched the book across the room and refused to pick it up again. It can be difficult, but if you want to write them well and appropriately, you will have to get through it.
Again, if you use them as setting, you’ll have a lot less to concern yourself with about them. I said why I advise against it. OP-DEC’s dinner scene could easily be interpreted as a parade, but for the dinner party at the start and the full circle it represents, but for the stakes this formal event poses.
What about those figures that some view as historical while others view them as myths? I’m speaking of religious figures from scripture. First, Muhammad was a real man not a myth, and there is plenty written of him for you to do proper research. Buddha is, I believe, a title given to the spiritual leader of that faith, but represents several real persons (one living today). There is also a lot of available research on them. Jesus is said to have been a prophet who actually lived, but no remains and questionable proof exists to support this. Regardless, it is advisable to treat him with care if writing about him, because the community he belongs to will definitely make your life difficult if you abuse him. It is, of course, up to you, if you want to deal with that. There will always be those who will have your back, but it may not be enough to make the effort worthwhile. (Just a side note: Jesus is viewed as a prophet by Muslims, and this may be further proof the Rabbi in fact existed. He is in their books. As far as I understand, the people who wrote those were scrupulous historians. Second side note: people still argue if The Bard was real or not and that was Elizabethan England.)
Whenever I am dealing with a historical person that I want to include into my work, I make sure that I respect the information available about them. Then, I read the room. To be completely transparent, I would have no issue writing confederate leaders as the racists they were, no issue upsetting anyone over it, but I would take care to write them as true to form as I could. It doesn’t do history any good to erase the humanity of bad people–they had families, or likeable personalities, and hobbies you could relate to. In fact, if we erase these things, we forget that humans can be monstrous at the same time they are human, capable of the worst atrocities, or even just the acid rain erosions. It’s good and healthy to understand the complexities that make a bad human. This is how we respond to the warnings to stop the worst from happening. It’s not to normalize them.
Not every person who has worn a uniform, therefore, deserves our unchecked devotion. I worked with a Marine who beat his girlfriend, my coworker, and broke her nose and destroyed her life for a time. He tried to get in my face a few times, too. He was AWOL at one point and thought that was a riot. How would you write him in a book? I’d start by not making him out as loyal to this country, but rather loyal to the mystique and power he thinks he’s gained by putting on the uniform. And, then, I’d draw his picture quite clearly from there. Unabashed. Someone might get offended that I didn’t gloss up the abuser, but I care more about the victims of abuse in its many (uni)forms.
Frankly, I think human monsters are more frequent than we let ourselves believe. If we wrote more honestly about them, we might actually confront that reality, and address it. In this, I think we find the philosophy or ethics of how to treat a historical figure in fiction: tell the truth and leave the slander for the National Enquirer. Writing historical fiction is no joke. If you come to your topic and subjects with respect, you will fare well with readers.
Let’s hop on over to see what the other authors have to say on the topic.
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P.J. Maclayne says
“Frankly, I think human monsters are more frequent than we let ourselves believe.” and I think we are seeing it more and more these days as the internet opens up more channels to expose them. Bad cops. Raciest and intolerant people. People who take the popular route because it’s easy.
Captain Maiel says
It’s amazing how intolerant. I just deleted a spam message from my contact form calling me a c-word for speaking against rapists running for office. In what world do we live when that is cause for rage?
Roberta Eaton Cheadle says
You have raised some very good points in this article. I have written about religion, actually religion plays a role in all my books and the Christian view on redemption, but I would never attempt to bring a religious figure into my writing. Some historical figures are best avoided in my opinion, unless you are deliberately looking to poke the bear which you are bound to do if you tread upon some areas of human society, even if provocation was not your intention. Another good point is how some historical figures are viewed and how you depict them. I wrote a story about Amelia Dyer and one reviewer said that nobody could be all bad and that my portrayal was biased. Amelia Dyer was a baby farmer who is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 400 babies. I don’t believe someone who can murder babies is likely to have a soft and cuddly side. My opinion, of course. That reader is also entitled to her opinion on the matter.
Captain Maiel says
She sounds terrible! I would have difficulty writing her as anything less, but then, I do need to know the specifics of her case to make that decision.
Richard Dee says
Shakespeare had it right when he said, “the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” You can find good in the worst of us.
Captain Maiel says
Yup! He had a lot of great insights.
phil huston says
Frankly, I think human monsters are more frequent than we let ourselves believe. If we wrote more honestly about them, we might actually confront that reality, and address it.
What seems to be the modern case is an attempt to eradicate history with a bad taste, as if it never happened.
What I have learned in this week’s adventure is that Historical Fiction is an oxymoron. If it is a tale, set in time period, then the peripheral set must stand up, but the work is still fiction. If it is indeed “historical” it is either a recitation of discernable facts or fiction in a Halloween mask. But as a one-off, who is to say any historical figure didn’t pass through village X and wink at character Y. How that moves plot other than to have the cast assembled at an event I can’t imagine, but the shelves and airwaves are full of just such fictitious manifestations replete with aging movie stars or “community” rituals.
Captain Maiel says
he word historical is the caveat. it doesn’t mean it’s 100% factual. It’s not factual fiction–that’s non-fiction. Historical simply means of the past/regarding the past. Historical facts, for instance, isn’t a redundant statement. And we must keep in mind, he who wins writes his – story.