#5onFri: Five Tips on Writing about Sensitive Subjects in Fiction

by Lee Bukowski
published in Writing

Growing up, we all read stories that ended with every problem resolved and neatly tied up with a bow. Damsel meets prince, they fall in love, they live happily ever after. Unfortunately, real life does not work like that. In real life, there are difficult, sensitive subjects and issues that may or may not ever be resolved.

Adult readers want topics that produce a strong emotive response. They want to know they are not alone in their struggles. They want to relate to characters who share their own painful journeys. Self-help books and memoirs often tackle these issues, but fiction readers also want stories that give voice to tough topics.

In particular, women’s fiction deals with themes that are part of our national dialogue. My debut novel A Week of Warm Weather explores sensitive subjects such as abandonment, addiction, and both physical and emotional abuse. Having experienced these issues—either myself or with people close to me—it was important to me to portray these experiences with empathy and authenticity for my readers.

Here are five tips for writing about sensitive subjects in fiction:

1. Don’t Sugarcoat

Sure, fiction is supposed to be entertaining, but unless you write fantasy or sci-fi, it should also be real. When writing about tough topics, don’t be afraid to be raw and put it all out there. Sensitive subjects resonate with readers when they are written realistically, not glossed over.

In A Week of Warm Weather, my protagonist Tessa was abandoned by her biological mother as a child. This affects her profoundly and informs every subsequent choice and behavior. Because she’s internalized her feelings and not worked through them, she feels inadequate and damaged. She is a people-pleaser to the point that she sacrifices her own emotional well-being. 

Most of all, she is terrified of further rejection and abandonment. This causes her to put up with abuse from her husband that will have readers screaming out loud at her. To sugarcoat such a trauma would be to minimize the severity of it and may alienate readers who have endured a similar experience.

Writing authentically about difficult topics results in a powerful novel that resonates with readers.

2. Draw on Your Own Experiences Whenever Possible

As the author, if you’ve experienced the sensitive issue(s) yourself—as I have—understand that you will be exposing a part of yourself. Don’t be afraid of that—it’s a good thing. 

My own experience gave life to Tessa’s emotions and actions. As an adult, I’ve worked through my trauma; therefore, I was able to draw on not only my memories of going through it as a child, but also how it affected all my later thoughts and actions.

I channeled that energy into creating Tessa. Though it was hard to dredge up painful memories, it was cathartic to embark on the journey through my character. 

My hope is that, while no two people who experience trauma react in exactly the same way, my book’s themes will resonate with readers and initiate a dialogue that helps them find ways to work through their own difficulties. 

Writing about a subject that matters to me helped me to treat it with the weight it deserves.

3. Do Your Research/Ask the Pros

When writing about sensitive subjects that you have not personally experienced, speak to people who have. They will ensure you portray characters authentically including how they talk, dress, and behave. 

Also, recruit beta readers who are members of the marginalized community or have lived through the experiences in your book. There is no better authority to determine if any part of your writing comes across as not believable. They will help you avoid stereotypes or “token characters” that add nothing to the story’s arc and are a sure way to alienate readers.

For my book, though I have personal experience with abandonment, addiction, and abuse, I sought the expertise of others with similar experiences and also professionals who have helped people through them. 

I attended AA and Al-Anon meetings where I spoke to people (after disclosing that I was writing a book) whose lives have been affected, and some destroyed, by addiction. I spoke to counselors who know firsthand the behaviors and responses of real people dealing with all forms of abuse. 

Even if you have experience with the difficult topics in your writing, research them thoroughly.

4. Have a Purpose

Even in fiction, readers want to know why you are writing about a topic, especially a sensitive one. It’s offensive to readers if a delicate subject is “thrown in” or does not advance the story. 

If you set out to write about a sensitive topic, commit to it. Learn everything you can about the topic so you can give it the authenticity it deserves. Don’t incorporate “buzz words” or “hot topics” to attempt to show you are in tune with what’s going on in the world today. 

Readers are smart. They will know immediately you are seeking attention, not deeply exploring an important subject to begin a dialogue or enact change. Don’t try to tackle multiple issues or characters that “tick a box.” This will result in your readers tossing aside your book in favor of one that deeply explores a topic that matters to them.

After reading my book, I hope people who have gone through similar experiences—either personally or relating to someone they know—will realize that secrets make us sick. Only through acknowledgement and dialogue can change occur. 

Decades ago, people did not openly discuss how it felt to be an adult who was abandoned by a parent. They were ashamed to admit they or someone they love was an addict. They hid abuse, especially emotional abuse, for fear of not being believed. 

Today, largely due to the impact of social media as a platform for discussion and debate, these issues are part of our nation’s ongoing dialogue. Make sure readers know your writing is part of that important conversation.

5. Bring Closure

In the end, we are all hopeful that better days are ahead. Try to give readers hope that they can overcome difficulties. That’s not to say you should patronize readers or pretend that every problem has an easy—or any—solution. 

When I write women’s fiction, I am mindful that although I am not writing a traditional self-help book, my readers are real people with real challenges. They are the sum total of their experiences, and within the pages of my book, they are likely to see a bit of themselves or someone they know. They want to be part of a community of people with shared experiences, even if those people are characters in a novel.

My book explores the effects of abandonment with the hope that readers know it is possible to break the cycle of generational trauma. It explores addiction with the hope that readers recognize and break free from codependent behaviors. It explores abuse with the hope that readers will shed their denial and shame. Mostly, I wrote my book to inspire readers to start a dialogue that helps everyone going through challenges.

If you have an idea for a novel that contains sensitive subjects or controversial issues, these tips should help your writing to resonate with readers. Hopefully by using these suggestions, you will compose a meaningful story that will affirm to readers that others share their struggles. 

Though my protagonist’s problems are not all solved by the end of the book, she finds her voice. Shouldn’t that be our wish for our readers?

Tell us in the comments: What tips are you going to use the next time you write about sensitive subjects?

Born and raised in a large family in eastern Pennsylvania, Lee Bukowski has always had an interest in reading, writing, and storytelling. She holds a BA in English and Secondary Education from Millersville University and taught seventh grade English and writing for fifteen years. In 2017, she obtained an MFA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Currently, she teaches writing at the college level and freelances as a proofreader and editor. When she’s not teaching or writing, she loves reading and traveling, especially visiting her grown daughters in Boston and Fort Lauderdale. A Week of Warm Weather is her debut novel. Lee lives with her husband in Reading, PA.

You can find her on her website or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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