When Tackling Hard Topics in Fiction

TW: This post deals about topics such as rape, assault, racism, homophobia, mental health issues, and abuse. While none of the topics are described in detail, please be aware of their presence and the potential triggers before proceeding.

I love reading books that address difficult things that we go through as human beings. I find these kinds of stories allow us to not only raise awareness of an issue and open productive dialogues, they can give us hope. If those characters can overcome, so can we. Tales of human resilience are something I will always be drawn to championing as an agent. When handled properly, there is so much potential for healing.

There is a very special relationship between a reader and a book. The very act of reading a novel opens one’s mind to someone else’s experience; it has to be that way in order to take the journey an author has set out. This is why the words and the messages within a work hold so much potential power to promote new ideas and help change and better the world we live in, hence the importance of respectfully, accurately, and appropriately handling sensitive subjects like racism, rape, abuse, mental health issues, and more. Furthering problematic ideas that are already prevalent helps no one.

How, though, does one bring much-needed attention to a topic without unintentionally harming the community one is trying to help? This is a hefty question. We are all products of our environment, and the environment we are part of is systematically problematic. Over time, we internalize many of society’s expectations and prejudices. No one becomes “woke” overnight; it’s a slow process of constantly examining situations, thoughts, and beliefs, raising our level of self-awareness, and changing how we interact with the system we live in. No matter which community we come from, no matter how we identify, we all retain some of the outdated thinking our society refuses to relinquish, and they can impede our ability to see the world as it is and, more importantly, how it should and could be. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.

This is a vast topic and one that changes daily. Discussion will continue as we find ways to improve. However, generally speaking, I’ve found these pointers to be of help.

The first thing to examine is ownership: Is this your story to tell? Often, this is the first sign of a problematic book. It is extraordinarily difficult to tell someone else’s story well, especially when it comes to the experience of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and mental health issues. It’s typically better to let those with first-hand knowledge be the one to tell the world about it. This not only prevents inaccurate depictions, it also allows those from marginalized communities to have a voice and speak for themselves, a right often denied to many. Additionally, there’s a question of message. What is it that you want to say with your work? Why are you the right person to say it? What do you want the reader to take away from their journey into your world?

Next is viewpoint: From whose perspective is the story told and what is the focus? Most stories about trauma should be told from the point of the survivor. Too often, novels centered on the attacker—who is essentially the antagonist—land in my inbox. There is precedence in literature for these stories, but few of the existing examples are effective representations. More to the point, we have enough redemption arcs for unlikable, irredeemable characters. We need more books concentrating on the strength, perseverance, and humanity of the survivors.

This last advice may feel like common sense to some, but since I still see it in queries, I’m going to mention it here. Don’t use trauma as a plot device. If some major, life-changing, traumatic event is mentioned, it has to be addressed in a meaningful way. This means taking the time to delve into the effect of this incident on not only the character but the community. A common example is sexual assault or attempted assault. Those who haven’t lived the experience often forget the long-term consequences. Although everyone deals with such situations differently, and none of those responses is wrong, the portrayals don’t often ring true. Rare, for example, is the woman who happily embarks on a first date with a relative stranger days, weeks, or even months after an assault. The assault often becomes a way for the protagonist—usually male—to either demonstrate their awesomeness (look at how much nicer he is than that other guy!) or to prove to the girl via heroic moment or sex that what happened to them in the past doesn’t actually matter much at all. There is a good way to check the necessity of a certain event. If addressing the issue thoroughly means completely deviating from your story, chances are it has no business being included to begin with.

Before I go, I have one final plea: Don’t forget the hope. Personally, this is a must for any book handling hard topics. A thread of hope carries readers through the darkest journey. Give me empowerment, resilience, justice, sisterhood, and more. Tell us not only about the darkness, but how to find the light again.

While this post by no means covers every angle of this multifaceted issue, I hope it has been helpful. No matter what, I hope it inspires you to keep writing and perfecting your craft.

‘Til Next Time,



2 thoughts on “When Tackling Hard Topics in Fiction

  1. R.H. Berry says:

    I’d be curious to hear (or, read) your thoughts on sensitivity readers and what they mean for the writing community! I’m a writer exploring diverse stories with determination to tell them correctly, while also being aware that writing outside my culture could be appropriative… or worse, an attempt to capitalize on marginalized issues that don’t affect me. Sensitivity readers have been an integral part of my process, but the limited availability, emotional labour, and inherent privilege that comes with being able to pay for this service has me conflicted. Not to mention the worry that an author can abuse these services, claim they’ve got a sensitivity reader’s stamp of approval, and thus deflect legitimate criticism.

    As you can see, my head’s reeling with this. I’d love to see more points of view on sensitivity readers!


  2. Tony K Boatright says:

    Well Said!

    My perspective is on how poorly the disability community is often portrayed. And the language; every time I see wheelchair bound I want to scream. We do not get the attention that other minorities receive, so change is a long slow process.


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