I’m a terrible salesperson when it comes to my own work. I do have quick little pitches stored in my head that I use for emergencies, i.e., when people ask me what my stories are about. But then *gasp* sometimes people ask me more questions, and I usually find myself tacking on a warning that some of my story material ventures into the shadows and so maaaaybe they miiiight not want to read it. (See? Terrible salesperson). The reason for this warning is because I integrate more somber topics like sexual assault and addiction and bullying into the backstory or as a challenge for my characters to overcome (this post explains why I take that leap and venture to tougher topics, and this one by my dear friend Wendy Jessen provides excellent tips on how to tackle tough topics with sensitivity).
I’ve noticed that when I write contemporary stories (but also when I write fantasy) that the realities of life have significant influence upon my stories. While my own experiences or observations don’t necessarily drive my works-in-progress, they certainly steer them. Sometimes my characters struggle with the same things that I or the people I know have endured. Most recently, my characters have started experiencing hardships that I see as screaming injustices in the world.
When I initially sat down and semi-outlined my current WIP (I am a pantser and probably always will be), my main character was struggling with his inability to form any sort of emotional connection in relationships. That was going to be the driving force of his arc, and he was going to be the only voice in the story. But I’ve been thinking about the meaning of his arc more and more, especially in the past few weeks, and while I still think this suits him, it somehow feels like it’s not enough for the overall story. Heart heavy with the self-doubt that is par for the course for pretty much every writer I know, I told a couple of my critique partners that I didn’t know if my story had enough meaning. Because you see, in the past few days, I’ve thought a lot about the bravery required to face hate and darkness in the world. My lovely critique partner Elaine assured me that my stories do have meaning, but that it would also be a good idea to take note of the other ideas that were in my head. Wonderful advice, and I took it, with the initial idea that this could be in the next story.
I’ve decided not to wait. My current story has room for another voice that speaks against the injustices of prejudice and hate. This means another character with another POV (thankfully I won’t have to create her from scratch, but she didn’t have a POV in the story before). The utter necessity of this is due to specific events in the recent news — events that made this quote come to the forefront of my thoughts:
I don’t pretend to be a champion of social justice; I don’t possess that level of bravery. However, when I write that bit of darkness into my stories, I also provide a way to fight that darkness for my characters: light. They are good people that begin their story with significant struggles, and they traverse bumpy and painful landscapes, but they eventually come to believe and hope and heal and find their way to a resolution — no matter what — to an eventual better ending.
In living through or seeing injustice, whether it be prejudice, racism, sexism, or discrimination of any form, whether we ourselves are or hear of victims of crimes or assault or abuse, when we live through times of hate, we storytellers have the power to make things right again. We can help our characters through those trials. If you are fortunate enough, you will help some of your readers as well. In taking your characters and readers into the dark, the best way to drive out that darkness is to provide a light. And hope.
p.s. Now that I’ve figured this out about my own stories, I don’t think I’ll have a hard time talking about what my stories are about — in case anyone asks.
Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at www.helenboswell.com.