History is littered with phenomenal literary works that address controversial subjects during fraught cultural and political times and that become legendary. Whether fictional or not, they are lauded for accurately representing a period in time, for their honesty, and for their significance to humanity. I’m looking at you, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird. But what puts a work in the sphere of “literary significance” and not “enraging tripe”? Let’s explore.
1. The Author Should Have Experience in the Subject Area
Even if writing fiction, an author should always have some kind of experience in the thematic or subject area of his or her writing. Referring to the previous two classics that dealt with racial tensions on a very real playing field, Harper Lee grew up in Alabama and no doubt bore witness to racial atrocities in her hometown. Likewise, Harriet Beecher Stowe came from a family of activists and was an abolitionist. Both of these women had unique perspectives and experiences that made their writing reflective, not speculative.
2. The Reason for Social Struggle Should be Integral to the Plot or Theme
Recently, someone in a writing group asked if it would be inappropriate to have a group of non-human creatures captured and enslaved by another race of non-human creatures and then forced to change their religion and their language. The consensus in the comments was overwhelmingly negative. Obviously, the concept harkened to the American slave trade. I read the comments with interest all the while wondering why. Why is this concept integral to this story? The author needed to provide more context. The question didn’t allow us to understand what the story was about.
For example, in Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling has elves cast far below the rest of magical society (along with various other hierarchies with the wizards being at the top). Now, these are different creatures, not different races; though, we do have societal divides in terms of pure bloods, muggles, muggle-born wizards, etc. So, we see the impacts of devaluing life based on uncontrollable factors like how one is born on multiple levels in the story; likewise, throughout the book, we see that when constructs like racial superiority are broken down, the outcome is overwhelmingly positive.
I will also note that in comparing the question in the writer’s group and the themes explored in Harry Potter, that the poll in the writer’s group framed the question as would you be upset if a story was “about” this. The implication is that the story would show the enslavement taking place; however, what is the point? In Harry, the enslavement and suppression of the various groups already transpired; we see a society (the wizarding world) and how it has been impacted by the previous status-quo and then we see the faction of wizards intent on bucking that order and in establishing a new, more balanced status quo.
Thematically, this is the same thing that transpires in the novels by Stowe and Lee, which brings me to my next point.
3. Sacrifices Must be Made & Justice Should Prevail in Controversial Stories
Right must triumph over wrong in controversial stories. Mind, I won’t say this has to happen in every instance because there are always exceptions to the rule; however, generally speaking, justice needs vindication. This doesn’t have to come free of consequence. In Harry, many beloved characters, including Dobby, lost their lives. Not to deep dive into an analysis of Harry Potter, but I’ll argue that Dobby’s life was the most significant because he most symbolized what Harry and the Order was fighting for. When they lost Dobby, the seventh novel reached its turning point. Harry made a choice: horcruxes instead of hallows. He’d been embroiled in the fight against Voldemort because of his destiny up until that point (i.e., because Voldemort killed his parents); after Dobby died, Harry realized that it was more than his fight. He took up Dobby’s fallen sword and the book’s pace picked up as it accelerated toward its dramatic climax. Had Dobby not died, would Harry have still made the same choice about which path to follow after conferring with Mr. Olivander at Shell Cottage? Would it have been as impacting or have carried as much significance?
From a storytelling standpoint, I’ll add that the requisite sacrifice in novels that champion social justice and change elevates the emotional stakes. I cried when Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin died; I cried when Dobby died. Why do these characters die some may ask? When the audience is emotionally attached to a character who is tied to a cause, they are more likely to become invested in that cause. Authors don’t necessarily deliberate on this point before writing a story; rather, authors are compelled by an issue to write their story. They are attached to their characters, and the decision to sacrifice them for the greater good of humanity is of biblical proportions.
4. Truth is Essential in Controversial Storytelling
Lastly, I’ll say that when writing about controversial topics, it is important that the author tell the truth as he or she perceives it. These are not areas where characters lacking in complexity or authenticity will suffice. One of the main criticisms of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was that the characters were flat; however, given the timing of the story, the delivery of the story, and the story’s subject matter, it was still one of the most significance and influential books of its time and remains a significant work of American literature. The novel had a robust plot structure and clear thematic elements; what’s more, Stowe’s story was honest. She described the world and its faults and contradictions as she saw them, and others agreed.
That said, harkening back to the idea polled in the writer’s group, without knowing more about it, it’s impossible to say for sure if it’s a ‘go’ or a ‘no go’. We know from history there is potential for the story to be significant and well-told. Is the fantasy genre the best place for this kind of story? Is this something fantasy readers are searching for, a politicized fantasy novel? That is a question the author needs to ask. The author needs to have a clear idea as to where the story is going and should be prepared to appropriately address controversy and to defend his or her story. The poll showed the subject matter ignites passionate responses. As an author when working with controversial subjects and themes, this can be a good thing or a bad thing; how its handled will be the determining factor.
Vonnie York is a freelance editor with ten years’ professional editing and writing experience. I do sample edits of up to 1,000 words. Contact me for copyediting, line editing, developmental editing, and author coaching services.