To Write or Not to Write? Controversial Topics in Fiction

woman reading eyesI belong to Novelists, Inc, and we’ve been having an interesting discussion on our email loop recently.  A member asked about the pros and cons of addressing controversial topics in our fiction. As you can imagine, the comments of the authors have varied just as much as their opinions on the topics themselves.

I am a very opinionated person–there are not many subjects where I’m sitting on the fence. But that’s “Diane Chamberlain” the person. “Diane Chamberlain” the author is a little different. She has opinions, but her characters don’t always feel the same way she does on a particular topic. I’ve occasionally written about characters whose perspectives are the polar opposite of my own. I find that very challenging, but also illuminating, because it helps me understand “the other side” a bit better, even if I may never embrace that view.

My whole reason for writing is to entertain, not to convince someone else to think the way I do. So do I shy away from controversial topics in my books? No I don’t, but I’m quiet when writing about them. Who likes being clobbered over the head with someone else’s agenda? The rule in fiction is “show, don’t tell,” and I think that applies doubly when it comes to writing about controversial issues. Harper Lee never needed to tell us that Atticus Finch was not a racist in To Kill a Mockingbird, did she? We got it.

For that reason, I rarely address an issue head on.  Some of my characters have had abortions, and some of them have lived to regret that choice while others have not. In my most recent book, Secrets She Left Behind, fifteen-year-old Andy has a girlfriend who is half African-American and half Indian. Nothing is ever made of that fact. It’s simply accepted by the other characters. In several of my books, there are gay secondary characters who make up an ordinary part of the landscape. In The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, a guilty character receives the death penalty, while an innocent character comes precariously close to the same sentence. (Side note: although I’ve been interviewed repeatedly in the US with regard to CeeCee Wilkes, no American interviewer has ever asked my opinion of the death penalty. Every single interviewer from the United Kingdom, though, has wanted to know my take on the subject). 

What I find most fascinating and rewarding about the subject of controversial topics in fiction is this: I have fans who are on my wavelength when it comes to opinion, and I have fans who are way, way, way off my wavelength. I know this because I hear from both “camps,” and they both think I am writing for them. I love them all, and I love that they all seem to feel touched by the writing, regardless of their personal perspectives. I hope that means that I’m reaching readers on a human level that skips over politics and religion and differences and goes straight to the heart.

That’s what it’s all about.


  1. Diane Chamberlain on September 1, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I understand people had problems leaving comments today. So sorry! That’s what happens when we try to make things better. . .sometimes they get worse for a while. It seems to be working now, but if anyone continues to have trouble, please let me know at Thanks for your patience.

  2. Bren on September 1, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Interesting topic, Diane. You do a beautiful job of dealing with “issues” without beating the reader over the head with it!

  3. Denise on September 2, 2009 at 10:02 am

    This is an interesting topic! I had never really stopped to think about how an author can use fiction in order to tout their own agenda.

  4. Diane Chamberlain on September 2, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    We’re still testing! Sorry for the inconvenience this comment form has caused some of you. I THINK it’s working now. Keep me informed if you have problems, please!

  5. brenda on September 2, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    I am trying it again Diane.

  6. brenda on September 2, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Diane-you have never come across as a writer trying to convince others to think only your way!!!!

  7. […] To Write or Not to Write? Controversial Topics in Fiction […]

  8. Jen on January 26, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    I’m a first time writer and have completed a booK it’s based on real events and contains real evidence however I did send a pdf to a publisher for help as to what I could do to get my messages out there but I was told it is cover controversial and legal issues I was asked if I had shown to a solicitor! I’m left feeling nervous as I have no idea why I would need to given its all true with convictions and news paper reports state what I have said could you help me understand what he was unwilling to tell me as Imuch lost 🙂

    • Diane Chamberlain on March 23, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      Jen, I really can’t help you with this since I don’t have experience writing about real events. I would try to get an agent/publisher and let them advise you on the need for a solicitor. Good luck!

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