Should You Write About Taboo subjects?

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



  1. Hi, this is an interesting one, I have a novel that I have been trying to get beta readers for. I posted on Goodreads asking for help but was frustrated when I had no offers. There were plenty of readers on the site, just none that were willing to look at my story. The MC is a Nazi skinhead who (cut a long story short) body swaps with an Asian boy he abused, There's a girl he falls for and a family situation he lacked while growing up, all helping him to realise the error of his ways. The story is about redemption, love and the strength of a family. The problem is that everyone was put off by the Nazi connotations and wouldn't go near it. A few people persevered (after some persuasion) and enjoyed it, saying that they weren't expecting the story to go the way is did and ended rooting for the Nazi (ex) in the big final punch up! My taboo subject was a bit hard to overcome for some, its a mainly American site, so I wondered if the subject is even more taboo over there.

  2. Hi Darren,

    It doesn't sound taboo to me at all, and it appears the way you have structured it and thought it out is most interesting with the parallels of violent hatred and judgement and acceptance and tolerance etc. There have been plenty of body swap stories, but this is a fresh angle on the path to redemption.

    Also, people write about Nazis all the time, so how can yours possible be taboo? The novel I'm currently editing is based around the behaviour of a Nazi colonel towards his Russian prisoners. Again, not taboo. But Americans are more conservative in their ideology and thinking. They're a bit tetchy about subjects that would be less shocking for us, so that might explain it.

    At the end of the day, if you have an amazing story, then it should be told. And read.

  3. Thanks for that, I was surprised, and frustrated at the reaction to it. I have researched into to body swap genre and although it seams cheesy, I hope that I can write in a way that brings it a level of depth. Obviously the initial level of conflict is immense, imagine the mind job.
    Do you edit professionally, I'm a way off at the moment, just getting some Beta's, but one day...

  4. To answer your question, I edit all my work, have since I started writing almost 35 year ago. I'm self taught, but the process of editing probably took me ten years to fully understand and master. I would advise all writers to learn all they can about editing their own work - you learn as you go along, you learn from reading other books and you learn from rejections.

    I've often argued the point with the gamut of self published writers who employ professional editors (and still the work is substandard), that editing is something every writer must learn to do, as part of the writing journey, instead of letting someone else wipe their backsides. The likes of Stephen King James Herbert had to edit themselves, and they certainly didn't have the internet at their fingers tips. We get better with experience, and editing is no different.

    As for Beta readers...just be aware that unless you have professionals who've worked in publishing/editing or writing, many readers know diddly about the craft and will not be able to provide you the crucial technical feedback you need. It's a bit like me telling Peter Gabriel that his songs are good, or not so good, or dull or genius. But I can't tell him to swap the drums on Red Rain for a xylophone or change the tone or pitch, remove the riff of the base guitar or mix up the words a little, because I am not a musician. Beta readers can be ok, but are sometimes counterproductive!

  5. I guess I'm looking for a short cut to editing utopia, I think that even in 35 years, I'd still not be proficient.
    I'm on what I see as first level beta's, although their feed back will be helpful, all I want to know at this stage is if my work can be read from start to finish without some massive hole blocking the way.
    I'll seek professional advice when beta's can tell me what's wrong, but my first goal is to get to a place where that's possible, then I can go from there.
    I've done some Beta reading and not even been able to get past the first paragraph, the issues are just too numerous, and as this is my first attempt, a full read through will be an accomplishment in its self.
    I know I always say this but thanks for your posts, If I do achieve a full read through, a lot of it will be down to the advice in these blogs.

    1. Feedback is essential, for sure, as long as it is constructive and not negative, so go take on board the constructive feedback and ditch the negative.

      When I critique writers, I pull no punches when I point out errors, but I do it constructively by telling them where they have gone wrong and HOW they can improve and learn from it, but you are going about things in a methodical, constructive way and you are not rushing the process, which is what learning is about. So many writers are in too much of a rush to publish and end up writing crap because they haven't taken the time to learn how to write, but smart writers do, and it's good to know these articles are helping writers like you become the next generation of storytellers. Keep up the hard work and you will reap the benefits!


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