Dealing with real-word criminals in a story.


If you’ve ever seen an episode of Law and Order, then you’ve probably seen a disclaimer stating that while the story was taken from recent events, the plot, characters, and other items are basically fantasy and in no way to they represent what really happened in the real event.

That might not be the exact wording, but that’s the message intended behind it.

The same challenge applies to us writers.  Whether basing a story on a fact, person, moment in time, or event; it’s up to us to make sure that we don’t glorify or romanticize anything that could be considered fact or truth.  That doesn’t mean we can’t use a news article, living person, or active moment to inspire a new story.  No.  It means we can’t use that story to harm or misrepresent that person, place, or time.

I bring this up because of an article I read in a magazine yesterday.  The magazine was one I’ve never read before and the article was about a criminal.  The criminal has eluded capture for some time and through this, has gained notoriety.  (Including the article.)  The writer allows a paragraph for the crime he committed and the damage he caused, while the rest of the three pages allotted romanticize the criminals ability to avoid capture and the myth being built up around him.

I would’ve tossed it aside and gone on to other articles, but for the event that happened in the last few paragraphs.  A random person stumbles upon this criminal and proceeds to spend the night talking to him.  Nothing happens to the person and the criminal disappears again, but it made my mind start running with the thought, what if?

What if that happened to me or someone I knew?  What did they talk about?  Did the person know this guy was the criminal?  What was the criminal thinking during the conversation?  How dangerous was this moment in time?

It’s a sexy puzzle that writers dream of.  But how do you write about this moment without adding to the false image of this criminal?  How do you not glorify things while telling the story that wants to be let out?

How do you be responsible and still offer this story that is bubbling in your head?

I don’t have all the answers, but for me the best way to personally solve these dilemmas is to be both vague and varied.

First is to not use anything close to the real names of anyone involved.  I’m not going to give any personal notoriety to this criminal or bring back the horrible memories the victims had to go through by putting their names on the screen or paper.

Second is to change where and when it happened.  By doing this, the crime area is not transformed into a weird “tourist” area for the depraved minds that live off f the misery of others.  Bad things happen everywhere in the world.  Why damage the reputation of that city, county, or state just because that event is happening there now?

Third is to change the crime.  Parts of the event might filter through the creative process.  Changing the crime takes away the ability to match up a character to the actual crime, victim, and criminal.

When writing a fantasy about recent crimes, news headlines, political events, or social moments, it’s up to us to distance and protect the real people that had to live through the real event while offering our story for public viewing.

We write for others enjoyment.  We need to make sure we aren’t hurting others in the process.

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