How to write about controversial subjects
I didn’t really consider, when I was writing my debut novel, A is for Angelica, which is available from all good book shops, that I might be tackling a controversial subject. It was only when I started sharing it with other people that I thought, ‘Okay, maybe some of this is a little close to the bone, I need to get it right.’
The book is about stroke and caring for someone who has had a stroke. It’s about difficult decisions and the heartbreak of a loved one, on some level, being taken away from you. It’s supposed to make you think, as a reader, what would I do if I was in that same position?
So yes. A tough subject and potentially controversial. But that’s all right, isn’t it? We’re artists, aren’t we? It’s our job to tackle difficult topics. We should be bold and enlightening, not terrified into inaction, scared to shock and offend.
I certainly think so. But I also think that if you’re going to write about controversial subjects, you need to cover a few essentials before you get going.
Do your research
It doesn’t matter what you write about, you should always do a certain level of research. Some stories require more research than others, but if you’re going to write about a touchy subject, you need to make sure that you know what you’re talking about.
And that means taking more than a cursory glance at a couple of Wikipedia pages. You need to hit the library, buy books that you can own and scribble in, and contact organisations and relevant bodies.
I’m no expert on stroke or being a carer, but I did enough research to make me feel confident that what I was writing came from a position of knowledge and understanding. That’s really important. You need to know your stuff.
Ask an expert
You can read as many books as you like, but there’s nothing like speaking to someone who has been there and done it. Whatever it is you’re writing about, find an expert in that field and send them an email. Ask them if they would mind taking a look at your work and tell them you’d like their opinion.
Though I was happy that my potentially controversial passages were okay, I still needed some reassurance. I got in touch with a professor at my local University, a specialist in stroke and its effects. She read my novel and gave me the all clear.
Having an expert vet your work for accuracy and plausibility frees you up to concentrate on the writing. Similarly, any issues raised can save you a heap of editing work in the future. So get your expert in early. They can make a world of difference.
Do it for the right reasons
Controversy for controversy’s sake is one of my bugbears. You can tell when a writer is doing it and it never reads well. Being controversial without a purpose takes your reader away from the story and into your world. The world of an author trying to piss people off for no apparent reason.
Controversial subjects are there to be tackled, but make sure you’re doing it because it’s integral to your story. No other reason.
Prepare yourself for criticism
It’s likely that someone will take offence to what you’ve written. If you’ve done your research and got the experts in, that shouldn’t be a problem. You can rest assured that your work is accurate, plausible and handled correctly. Any complaints, well, it comes with the territory.
But you should still prepare yourself, because not everyone will see it that way.
Subjects tend to be controversial when they are emotionally charged and close to people’s hearts. They have impact because they touch a nerve. If you enter that debate, all be it through your fictional characters, you should be ready to defend your work. And that’s an incredible thing to do.
Write something bold. Make it brilliant. Defend it fiercely.
Don’t be shy
Finally, if you are going to write about a controversial subject, do it with gusto and empathy. If you are tentative, you will run into problems and your authorial shyness will come through on the page. It will lead to half-hearted characters and a plot that drifts.
Good writing challenges the reader and leaves them, hours later, thinking about what they’ve read and eager to return to the story. Controversy, really, shouldn’t come into it. A brilliant book is a brilliant book. So I say go for it, but be aware of what you’re doing. Make sure you get it right.
What about you?
How do you approach controversial subjects in your writing? Do you go all in and hope for the best or do you meticulously research and make sure you know what you’re talking about? Let us know in the comments.
Join 1600+ super subscribers
I send two regular newsletters. Draft Mode (biweekly) is about the writing process, writing resources, creativity and being an author. Minifictions (monthly) features five original pieces of flash fiction.
Sign up once. Choose your newsletters.Subscribe now