Getting It Right   5 comments

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?


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Awesome Power

Telling peopleโ€™s stories is a tricky business. When I was a journalist, I had a code of ethics I was supposed to follow. Believe it or not, journalists supposedly have a Code of Ethics. I don’t think any of us seriously believe today’s “journalists” follow that code. Maybe Sharyl Atkisson (an investigative journalist) does, but when reporters sit down with a gay, atheist classical liberal for most of day and then report he’s the leader of the American alt-right — clearly something has gone off the rails with regard to seeking the truth and reporting it.

Researchers dig into the lives of other people to tell their stories. When the subjects are living people they can sue you for getting it wrong, although it is really expensive and very difficult to actually win a case when you’re a public figure and since everybody these days has some public interface — you’re pretty safe in lying about anyone you like — which is why people do it. Most reporters today show no signs of ever reading that code of ethics and most of the people I know who have been the subject of a news feature didn’t think the reporter got their story right.

Living people have options for correcting the abusive retelling of their stories to support the political and/or social agendas of the news curators, but historical figures are not able to demand fair treatment. Many historians seem to feel free to cast historical figures in their own image and historical fiction writers — well, why do they need to get their facts right? They have a message to assert. What should they feel obligated to present the historical figure as the person they were when they were alive?

I am not speaking of all historical friend writers. My friend Becky Akers spends years researching her subjects before she writes about them, just for one example. She usually writes from the perspective of someone who was near the historical figure, so that she can allow the actual person to remain who they are and leave the interpretation to the fictional character. I’m sure there are other writers who take their craft just as seriously — and then there are all the others who don’t.

Great Responsibility

As a reporter, I felt a great responsibility to get the story right. I didn’t always have editors who agreed with me — which is one reason I am no longer a reporter.

Similarly, I don’t write historical fiction because I am aware of the great responsibility to get the story right. The only foray I’ve made into that arena is an alternative history short based on the question – What might have happened if the US Constitution had not been ratified?

I based the main character on an ancestor who I know a little bit about because his son told his story in a journal 20 years after the fact. The satellite characters were, many of them, historical figures who we know a little bit about by what they did in history. It was a short, so I couldn’t go deeply into their personalities, but I tried to write their broad strokes to correlate with what is known about them from history.

I felt I had an obligation to get my presentation of their characters right.

We Are Writing Their Story, Not Ours

One way that I make a little side money is to edit Master’s theses and Doctoral dissertations. I live in a university town with a large portion of the student body coming from other parts of the world, so I generally pick up a project or two every year. I’ve gotten to delve into all sorts of subjects, most often science subjects, but including treatment of historical events and characters. My job is to correct their English errors, but I’m a journalist at my center, so I often google their facts. I’ve learned some wonderful things about many people who lived in history. I’ve also learned that a lot of historians feel free to make claims about people who would never have agreed with that backward-looking take on their lives.

Some of that is understandable. We view history through our cultural lens. I think slavery is wrong and was a horrible institution because I was raised in the 20th century where every school child is taught from kindergarten forward to believe slavery is evil and those who owned slaves were irredeemable scoundrels. Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, couldn’t possibly have been against slavery. If he were, he’d have freed his slaves. Of course, his story was more nuanced than that. The son of slave owners, he inherited the slaves he owned and that inheritance already had an encumbrance of debt on it. By law, he couldn’t free his slave because they were collateral on his father’s debt, which he still owed when he wrote “all men are created equal”. He wasn’t being disingenuous when he wrote those words. He was actually trying to be crafty. The only way he could get out of being a slave-owner was for the government to outlaw slavery. England was still more than a half-century away from outlawing slavery, so Jefferson’s only hope of the law changing was another government. That’s not the only reason he supported the American Revolution, but it was the reason he wrote that controversial phrase. The American government didn’t outlaw slavery in his lifetime, therefore he remained a slave-owner who was against slavery. But we see him through out own cultural lens and historians and fiction writers rarely struggle beyond that barrier because it’s easier to write themselves into the character rather than get to know the character’s reality.

Our Obligation

So, the answer to the question is, I believe we have an obligation to our subjects to be considerate of who they were when they were alive. Don’t write them as a paragon of virtue or a troll of evil, but also don’t put yourself and your cultural biases into a character who lived in another era. I think the ethics of writing any story demands we get the character’s story as right as we can possibly make it.

It was their life after all, not ours. Which is not to say that you can’t have some fun, invent some interactions they didn’t have but could have, and have some of those side characters represent your viewpoint, but that writing historical fiction does not, in my opinion, grant us a right to lie about the person whose story we’re writing.

5 responses to “Getting It Right

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  1. And we have to remember that history is written by the winners and the farther back we go the less likely it is we can uncover the truth.


  2. I really enjoyed your thoughts, Lela, which reflect my own. In particular, your comments around people’s actions within a specific era or time frame. Not everyone has the courage to speak out against a flawed system even if they don’t agree with it. My experience is that most people are to busy trying to cope with their day-to-day lives to worry excessively about what is happening on the macro and micro political fronts.


  3. Times change and things that once seemed right now do not. There is great danger in judging the events of the past by today’s standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What he said.


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