Can Fiction Make a Difference in the World?

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. In October, she’s hosting a free webinar on how writers of fiction can use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.

We live in a time of great upheaval—a time when it seems like every time we turn on the news, there’s another crisis taking shape.

Wildfires and hurricanes. A pandemic raging out of control. Violence against people of color. Violence against women. Protests and counter protests. Debates about election integrity and voting rights.

Your list may be different than mine, but I’m willing to bet, as a writer, you feel it too: The desire to do something. The desire to make a difference.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, doing so can be as simple (and difficult!) as writing an essay or op-ed, or even pitching a book on an issue you’re passionate about. But for writers of fiction, how to engage with so-called political issues in our work isn’t always so obvious.

Those of us with MFAs may have been discouraged from bringing our politics to our creative work, either overtly or tacitly—the implication being that any work of fiction that attempts to engage with these sorts of issues will be inherently preachy or didactic, and therefore not all that good.

But those sort of attitudes are beginning to shift, as any recent survey of the New York Times bestseller list will serve to illustrate; checking in just today revealed a novel that tackles racialized policing (The Hate U Give), one that deals with domestic abuse (It Ends with Us), and another that touches on homophobia, by centering the romantic relationship between two men in the ancient world (The Song of Achilles). All of which offers ample evidence that novelists need not confine themselves to “safe,” noncontroversial topics in order to be successful.

Personally, the issues that matter most to me are climate change and social justice. Those are issues I’ve centered in my own creative work, and issues I’ve helped my clients tackle in theirs as well. What follows are three strategies I’ve found for engaging with these sorts of issues in a way that will strengthen, rather than weaken, your fiction:

1. Show the human

Sound bites and rhetoric. Buzz words and name-calling. Political discourse in this country can feel very thin at times, with everyone communicating in a sort of shorthand that does little more than ignite a knee-jerk response, either for or against the speaker’s position.

Good fiction aims to dig deeper than that, by revealing depth and nuance. And one of the most effective ways to do that—while getting past predictable debates on hot-button topics—is simply to show the impact a given issue has on one or more of your characters, in a way readers can’t deny.

That’s what Richard Powers did with the issue of deforestation in The Overstory, by showing what certain trees have meant to his characters, who then go on to put their lives on the line to save the last of the American old-growth. That’s what Tayari Jones did with the issue of incarceration in An American Marriage, by revealing the impact that one Black man’s unjust conviction has on his romantic relationship, and, ultimately, the course of his life.

There’s great power in such stories, and much of it lies in the way they reveal the impact of big issues at the level of an individual life.

2. Come with questions

The thing that can make overtly political fiction feel preachy or didactic is the sense that the author has everything all figured out, and is now simply playing out some sort of drama to illustrate those answers via sock puppets. (Think Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.)

A stronger approach is to start with ideas but then use the tools of fiction to investigate and interrogate them—in other words, to ask questions about them. Because if we really had all the answers, wouldn’t we be better served by hitting the campaign trail, or founding a nonprofit, rather than sitting here behind our desks?

I say, come to this work with your passion. Come to it with your desire to engage with issues of injustice, issues of conscience. But rather than answers, come with questions, because that’s what the tools of fiction are best suited to exploring.

If you do, chances are, you’ll wind up with a story that feels like a thoughtful investigation, rather than a thinly veiled screed.

3. Show different sides

When you feel passionately about an issue, it can be easy to cast those who hold an opposing viewpoint as the enemy—which means such people may wind up as one of the antagonists in your story.

This can be a useful way to shine light on the issue you’re exploring. But I say, resist the urge to paint that person in the typical role of the bad guy or villain. Because in the end, a thin, surface-level treatment of such characters tends to actually weaken your own position, by suggesting that you haven’t taken the time to actually consider where other people may be coming from.

And there’s an added benefit here, whether your antagonist is just sort of a petty profiteer or a full-on ax murderer: a more complex treatment of such characters tends to strengthen the story, offering the sort of insight into human nature and experience that characterizes so many of our best loved books.

And if there aren’t just two sides to the issue you’re exploring, but even three or four? So much the better. Different characters can hold different opinions on an issue, and embody different angles on it—which in turn can make the story feel more like a genuine exploration of a given territory and less like a set of directions.

Is there an issue you’re particularly passionate about? And if so, have you found a way to touch on it in your fiction? If so, tell us about it in the comments!

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