I often get asked a lot about this by writers, worried that some subjects are off limits and should never be broached at the risk of offending people or upsetting their own families.
Also, there is a fear that controversial subjects might limit readership or, worse still, publication, however, the thing to consider with writing is that it is not just a form of expression or an art form; it is the basis of our social comment on humanity. Finding answers to what makes people tick, what makes them do the things they do, is what writing really is all about. To that end, no subject is truly off limits.
But like any medium, it is how we handle the subject that really matters.
Just as artists are free to express what they want in their work, writing is no different. Writers are free to explore the forbidden or usually unavoidable subjects, however unsavoury they may be, particularly so if there is a moral behind the story and it raises the kinds of questions we as society should be asking and trying to answer. And those questions come about because taboos fascinate us and repel us in equal measure.
Should we all walk around with blinkers on, ignoring the darker elements of our world, or should we show the reality of what’s out there? After all, life isn’t all fluffy white clouds and bright blue skies. Writers like to tap into those murkier areas, to dig beneath the social and cultural values that veil the dark underbelly, to reveal truths that sometimes society doesn’t want to hear. But sometimes the greatest fiction comes from hard truth.
Fiction allows writers to push readers to question such taboos, why they exist, what makes them so forbidden and unacceptable, and to help them understand what they are in context to the story the writer creates.
But what subjects would be considered taboo?
There are social taboos and cultural taboos. Subjects that might involve children and young adults – themes of paedophilia and sexual abuse or torture – tend to make most people frown, but many high profile cases in the news should make us realise how common these are, so as writers, we should want to explore and understand the complexities and emotions that make people commit these acts. These are social taboos.
The same goes for rape or incest. Other themes might centre on the dead, so subjects with death and sexual fantasy/necrophilia are also considered very taboo. Themes involving drugs are also considered taboo, simply because of their effects and destructiveness.
But that’s not to say you can’t write about them.
Subjects that involve traditional belief systems, ethnic beliefs or religion (and associated radical) behaviours are considered cultural taboos. In the West, we’re not really bothered about flashing our flesh or using profanity or having wild drinking parties and so on. But in a Muslim country, modesty is important and profanity and nudity is very taboo, so if we write about them we need to be considered and respectful to different ways of life.
As writers, we should not be afraid of tackling the more unpleasant issues, whether it’s about violent sex, sexual fantasies, death, children, torture, incest, terrorism etc, but such stories should be written with great respect and care and not written for gratification, titillation or cheap insults, particularly to those have been victims of such.
Writers have a moral responsibility to show the impact and emotion and reality of the issue without mocking or demeaning the subject. So if you do write about something considered taboo, you need to consider it carefully and ask yourself how important it is to your story, the themes that are associated with it, the reasons behind it and the impact it has on the characters, and, ultimately, how the main character reaches his or her goal by the end of the story. Lastly, the story must end in a satisfactory, responsible and truthful manner.
Why should we write about them?
It’s a way of exploring such dark issues, to open up about them and to try to find the reasons behind it. Writing is all about finding out why people do the things they do, to uncover universal truths.
Through fiction, stories can help others that may have been through similar ordeals that your main character does, it shows that we shouldn’t hide away from such issues, but rather confront them.
Sometimes fiction can highlight the things that must be highlighted, rather than remain hidden away from society. Sometimes ignorance means we don’t have to confront the terrible things that are taking place in the world. If we don’t know about it, we don’t have to care.
I have covered many taboo subjects in my writing, such as child abuse, drug use, rape, genocide, terrorism and self-harm. I’ve done so because they are subjects that I, as a writer, feel should be explored and not swept under the carpet.
The more we learn, the better our understanding.
Remember, writing about controversial issues should never be for a reaction or shock value. Instead it should be because we need to know the truth.
Next week: How to write scary scenes