I 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.