There has been a rather lively discussion going on over at Absolute Write in the historical fiction forums. It’s about the ethics of writing about real people, particularly well-known people. Some posters believe that it’s unethical to try to write about what a real person may have thought.
I may be biased, but my opinion is the opposite. To be frank, I don’t think it’s writers’ duty to instill credulity in the masses. It’s fiction. Again, with emphasis: it’s fiction. I am not writing a textbook, and if anyone should wish to learn the facts of the story, they should go find a textbook on the subject.
The author–or director in the case of films–still has a responsibility to stay true to fact. I’m a bit of a crass, heartless soul to say it, but the characters in historical works are dead and can’t object or be harmed. The real problem, in my mind, is people believing lies. I don’t believe what I read in a fiction book, and I certainly don’t believe what I see on the silver screen. Even so, people do believe what they see, even if it’s a lie on TV or a lie on the pages (it’s similar to the arguments about children watching violent shows and movies). Shakespeare did irreparable damage to Richard III’s reputation (and in that case, so did Thomas More, who was purporting to tell the truth!). There are two solutions: A. the writer/director/person telling the story tells the truth and avoids twisting history, or B. people learn to look things up for themselves.
As B has a snowball’s chance in Hell of actually happening, we have to devolve to A. Authors owe it to their readers and to their subjects to tell as much of the truth as they can. Naturally, as IT’S FICTION they will invent some things in between. As long as this is done, B from above doesn’t have to be relied upon, and people actually read/see a real story unfolding before their eyes. Yes, we owe it to the memory of those we write about to write the truth, but honestly, I think it’s the current reader we should be more worried about. And the solution is simply to tell the story as it was.
In fact, I think we do these people a service by writing about them. If we didn’t tell stories about these wonderful, real, historical figures, then people would know very little about them since very few of them bother with B (eg reading history). Instead of invading these people’s privacy, I personally view it as raising them from the ash heap of history, or giving them a slightly new perspective if they’ve been written about before. There is always room for a new viewpoint.
It is the writer’s name on the cover of a novel. It is clearly their imagination at work. I have no ethical problems with writing about real people, and am frankly amazed that some writers do. I respect it–but to be honest, I think their being overly-meticulous.
If I should ever have to face the characters I write about, I would not be in the least ashamed of what I’d written about them. Nor would I expect them to object to being written about (well, my characters were fame whores in their own right, mainly, but that’s beside the point). Once more, for the last time, just in case someone missed it the first three times: IT’S FICTION.