How to Write Fiction that Matters

Regardless of your political leanings (and at the risk of gross understatement), it’s fair to say that this year’s election season was difficult for everyone. And in the aftermath, writers of fiction may be asking themselves whether writing fiction is actually a worthwhile endeavor. Is it vital? Is it truly worth our time? I would answer with a resounding yes — absolutely. At least, it can be. Without reading 1984 in high school, for instance, I’m not sure I’d have been so capable of recognizing authoritarian double-speak as a young person because I would not have had the language to label it. Yes, fiction can matter, but there is a vast difference between writing about “issues” in a didactic way and writing complex, socially conscious modern fiction that is courageous and perhaps even life-changing.

Here are some ways to help direct you away from the former and more toward the latter.

1. First, Let Things Stew

In many types of media, immediate reactions to world events are necessary and valuable to help make sense of things in real-time and direct awareness to certain situations. Traditional newspaper journalism is one of those types of writing. So is Twitter. Even poets have been known to dash off a few pithy or poignant stanzas in the midst of fallout from major world events. But great literature in the form of fiction is rarely one of those mediums. Great fiction — like a good roux — relies on subtlety, complexity, and a long, low simmer to succeed. By all means, write out your immediate feelings, concerns, and exasperations, but let the fiction wait a while. Let matters bubble under the surface and write in other forms before tackling that weighty and timely short story. Then, once you do write it, let it simmer even longer still. Editors will have little patience for fiction that is obvious, knee-jerk, or lacks wisdom.

2. Write About People

Newer (and even some established) writers of fiction often want to write “about” an issue, but successful stories are about people, not issues. Readers seek complex characters and deep humanity from our best literature, and this criteria isn’t dampened for more socially conscious work. Paul Beatty won the most recent Man Booker Prize (the first American to do so) not for writing a novel “about” race; he won the award for writing a unique, bold, and scathing satire about a black man facing a Supreme Court case for reinstating slavery and segregation. As another example, a reviewer for Financial Times called Madeleine Thien’s historical saga Do Not Say We Have Nothing, “A deeply profound and moving tale where music, mathematics and family history are beautifully woven together in a poetic story… Full of wisdom and complexity, comedy and beauty … both hugely political and severe, but at the same time delicate and intimate.” The novel is in part about the human consequences of political repression in China, yes, but it is first and foremost a story: “moving,” “full of wisdom and complexity,” with richly imagined characters. Instead of trying to write something profound, write profoundly about people.

3. To Tackle the Familiar, Veer into the Unknown

By making the world strange, you free yourself to examine your “issues” in a more nuanced, critical way. Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad re-imagines the eponymous human network that helped escaped slaves reach the North as a literal system of trains underneath the pre-Civil War South, and he accomplishes this with powerful results. And who can ever forget those dystopian firemen who actually start the fires from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? Don't feel that you must venture into science fiction, alternate histories, or outright dystopia in order to write effectively about real-world problems, but you might want to examine such problems through a prism or from a skewed vantage point that could enable you to envision something entirely new. Even subtle tweaks to your society or characters can help you resist falling back on tired tropes and didacticism.

4. Stay Sharp by Writing in Other Forms

If writing fiction that matters to the world doesn’t come easily, try experimenting in other modes of writing. Try essays, try memoir, try poetry. That’s not to say that you should try to publish all your experiments; you should probably let your beginning work exist as mere practice. But if you feel truly compelled to speak on certain issues, there are many other forms of speech that can be effective if accomplishing this in your fiction is not your forte. If you try to force insightfulness, it will come across as, well, forced. Beyond writing and speech, never forget direct action. Your fiction doesn’t have to be activist; you can do good work in your real life by volunteering for organizations that matter to you.

5. Comedy is Crucial

Don’t forget that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with escapism — we all need a good yarn every once in a while to make life tolerable. Making people laugh is vital for collective well-being and mental health. So don’t feel pressured to write only “fiction that matters.” You can contribute to humanity in other ways. You can relieve the pressure a little and make us laugh. You can give us catharsis and make us cry. It’s okay to allow yourself to write simply an amazing story. In fact, I would say, it’s imperative.