Writing a novel can be a really fascinating, creative journey that has the ability to set you free from the constraints of reality. However, sometimes, writing a novel can lead you into the dark corners of researching horrid historical events and places that make you re-consider what to leave in and what to leave out of the story. As writers, we know it’s important to be ethical in our retelling and remixing of stories, events, places and of the lives of people.
This week, being three weeks into writing my novel, I’ve been researching in depth about the topic I’m writing about and came across a bit of an ethical issue. As I worked through this issue, I realised that it’s a topic that really needs to be unpacked and discussed further.
The question I pose is; where lies the line between fact and fiction? and at what point is it okay to use real places, events, or people in your novel even though they may be deceased? It’s certainly a possible defamation issue to consider pre-publishing… or pre-writing, really.
Any challenges this week?
- Working through an ethical issue with the events and places in my novel. I’m thinking I could use the event and place, but certainly not the people involved… I just want to make sure I’m representing as much truth in my writing as possible while still being ethical. I think Tatiana De Rosnay, author of Sarah’s Key dealt with ethics in her writing beautifully.
- Still a lot of research to do. It’s fascinating but can be overwhelming at times. Although my novel is fiction based, I love elements of truth in writing. Often writing elements of truth adds to the suspension of disbelief in a story. Think The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
Week 3: The fine line between fact and fiction
In the early stages of writing a novel it’s really important to consider any ethical repercussions that could occur in the future. You’d hate to complete a novel, have it accepted by a publisher, then have them turn around and say; sorry, but you can’t say that. Take it out or we won’t publish your book! That would be awful! Especially if the whole novel is based around the event, place, entity, or person that was represented in a defamatory way.
The good thing is that there are things we can do to make sure we are being vigilant with truthful representation in writing.
During my time studying my degree, I learned the importance of ethical writing and the ways we can practice writing fiction with due diligence. This is a topic I consider to be highly relevant particularly when writing historical fiction, creative non-fiction, novels based on true stories, and memoirs. It’s a balancing act between having a beautifully constructed, meaningful novel that suspends disbelief through the use of truth, and having a finished product that either a publisher won’t publish it or you could be sued for defamation, and possible really hurt people still living today.
When contemplating what truths I may write about in my fiction, I often consider the following:
- If you are modelling a character from a real living person, change practically every detail about them including their name, hair colour, personal background, relationships, occupation, and anything else that may identify them as someone real. Just a little note: you cannot be sued for libel defamation by someone who is deceased! That may be obvious… but just putting it out there.
- Don’t create any villains or antagonists names that sound similar to living people. For example: Bill Skaites (Bill Gates). It sounds way too similar and you’d be treading on a very thin line.
- Disclaim it! Have a short disclaimer in the prelims of your novel saying something like this -“This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental”
- Businesses and organisations can be defamed as well. So, be careful when representing them in your writing. For example, if I am writing about a hotel, I mustn’t use the name and any defining details about that specific hotel that could identify it as being the one I’m writing about.
- Ask for written permission. If you want to write about someone or mention them in any way that could identify them, ask them personally if they would be willing to sign a document of permission.
Join in the Conversation!
Have you ever came across an ethical issue in researching your novel? Comment in the section below. We’d love to here what you have to say.