Questions 3: Using Historical Horrors in Fiction

Map from “Man in the High Castle”

I tried getting into ‘Man in the High Castle’, but it didn’t stick.  That’s not what this post is about, but the two episodes I watched had me thinking of something.  We have a lot of fiction that incorporates real events that are considered horrors.  Usually this involves wars, which people seem to enjoy fictional versions of.  Yet, these do have a place in history, so some people get upset.  This isn’t really a genre that I pay a lot of attention to, so I’m going to open the floor right away.

  1. What do you think about using fictional versions of dark historic events?
  2. Are there any events that you think should never be given a fictional treatment?
  3. What do you think is the positive and/or negative of creating such a story?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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19 Responses to Questions 3: Using Historical Horrors in Fiction

  1. Fictionalized tragedies, wars, etc, are fine, as long as you handle them right, and do your research properly, and make it perfectly clear you are fictionalizing them.

    I don’t think it’s so much that certain things should or shouldn’t be done, as that if you’re going to do certain things from history you need to handle them with care, and whatever historical event you’re using, you better do your research properly. You need to be prepared for a lot of criticism too, since you can guarantee someone won’t like that you picked that particular event, and someone else won’t get the memo about it being fictionalized so will call you out on any inaccuracies (even if you did them on purpose as part of the fiction part of the historical fiction).

    The main positive is that the fictional story might encourage people to learn about something they might otherwise have ignored. Maybe even read more on the topic. The main negative is the risk of upsetting people if you don’t handle part of it – especially the more terrible parts – just right. There are other positives and negatives, but I think those get the top spot.

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  2. Excellent post, Charles. I think using dark events should be confined to a backdrop and not fictionalized or changed. Of course if one wants to create a fictionized even that is dark I think it is okay.
    The only event that I see that should be off-limits to fiction is the Holocaust. Yes, the Holocaust could be used as a historical setting but to try to fictionalize the reality would be a dishonor to the true event.
    The positives of fictionalizing a dar even (Other than the Holocaust) would be perhaps people would be interested enough to learn what really went on. The negative is the fictionalized story be taken as the true story and end truth-seeking.

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    • There are definitely limits, but I think those vary from person to person. I wouldn’t necessarily be against a fictional use of the Holocaust depending on how it was done. It’s a sensitive subject, so I can’t see much variety in it.

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      • I guss I was saying to alter reality with a fictional treatment. Like constructing a story where the Holocaust never happened. I could see characters swept up in the Holocaust (Sophies Choice) being used. A fictionalization where an SS guard is kindly and plays the role of a victim would be a disservice. Even if there was an incident like that it would have been the exception without documentation.

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      • Eliminating events is a tough one. I’ve read and seen stories where they were prevented. It shows how history might have changed, which is interesting. Full on denial is a problem.

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      • V.M.Sang says:

        I agree. It definitely must be treated correctly, whatever that means. But I think that something like the holocaust should be brought to people’s attention, either in fiction or in fact. There is too much of a rise of the right, at the moment. I seem to think, daily, about the Nazi death camps and the poor people who suffered in the, Every day there seems to be news of right wing people persecuting others, or trying to persuade other people to their philosophy of hatred.
        If a work of fiction can bring it to people’s attention and start a debate, or make people shudder and cry at the horror, then it’s acceptable. There will be people who say it shouldn’t be done, and that terrible events should be forgotten, but I disagree. They should be remembered in all their horror so they never happen again.

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      • Fiction is a great tool to bring attention to these things. My only worry is if people take the fiction as fact.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    1. What do you think about using fictional versions of dark historic events?
    I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, but some friends really love it. I’ve read many fictionalized WW2 stories that were excellent. But they were more straightforward rather than a “what if this happened” view of actual historical events. I enjoyed a series that retold the events of the Napoleonic era, but with magic and dragons.
    2. Are there any events that you think should never be given a fictional treatment?
    I can’t think of any offhand. It really depends on the author and the vision for the work. I don’t tend to read stories where the goal is to mock the events or to deny that said events occurred.
    3. What do you think is the positive and/or negative of creating such a story?
    Making the fictional account as compelling as the real-world account is challenging. A friend wrote a fictionalized account of some teens in Auschwitz. I featured her book on my blog. Telling the story was important to her because of her heritage. She was extremely meticulous about researching the story.
    I have read and reread THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY many times. It is about the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Some complained that the story was too “light” with its humor. But the authors captured the resilience of the residents of the Channel Islands. Really well done.

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  4. I expect you ought to get some interesting comments. For myself, I am not against fictional versions of real events, and don’t think anything should be off limits. It’s up to the author to handle things well, and the review process can sort out those who aren’t delicate with some events. There are stories I don’t like, but I’m not in favor of censorship, or some moral police telling us what is not allowed. I set Panama in an historical setting, lots of real people died there, but I doubt there was much dark magic or any demons running around. People have the right to not read certain books, and should exercise that right rather than tagging some topics as taboo.

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    • I think people are able to avoid these types of stories fairly easily. See what it’s about and uncomfortable with the topic? Don’t read it beyond the blurb. Did you get any backlash from Panama?

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      • Not a bit. The shtick can wear thin with alternate history, though. I don’t think Tarantino is doing as well as some of his earlier projects. At least it’s wearing out on me to a degree. I have no idea in seeing his spin on the Manson family.

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  5. Charles, this is a great topic. One of my favorite books in this genre is 11.22.63 by Stephen King which is about a man that repeatedly goes back in time to thwart the assassination of JFK. When he finally succeeds, the altered present time is not what he expected. It couples time travel with a dark historic event. There’s also a new show on Apple TV called ‘For All Mankind’ that posits what would have happened if the Russians had reached the moon before the US. It’s an interesting spin on the Cold War.

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  6. This is interesting, because my sixth graders are just studying the Holocaust. We are focused on historical accounts by people who went through it, but there is a lot of historical fiction that also tells the story. “Number the Stars” comes to mind.

    I’m going to argue a little with some of your other comments and say that you should think long and carefully before re-interpreting a dark historical event. The people who suffered were real people, with real families, and their lives were dramatically effected. In the case of the Holocaust many of them are still alive.

    This is true of many other events. Think about the Trail of Tears. The Bataan Death March. The Jonestown mass-suicide. The Indonesian jet liner that disappeared. There are still relatives alive. Why would you cause more pain, just so you can write a story?

    Like I said, writers need to think carefully. Why do you need THIS dark event? Is there another way to make the point you need to make? That dark story may not be yours to tell.

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    • While I understand the concern, I think banning or restricting such things is a problem. These events are usually used as specific backdrops and because the author has an interest. As one person said, it can also bring attention to the event since it tends to be done in a way that doesn’t tread to far from reality. Those that do are either so far out there that it’s hard to take seriously or they’re rightly called on attempts to insult. You bring up points to make and I think that usually has to do with the specific event that the author chooses. Change the event and you can have a different story.

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