Handle with Care: How to Confront Touchy Issues with Compassionate Storytelling

May 13, 2019

Abortion. Homosexuality. Feminism. Race/border politics (because those have gotten conflated). These topics dominate the news, and fiction needs to accurately portray our world, but how do we write with caution and avoid inflaming or alienating readers? (Hint: Not with blunt statements like the opening of this article.) God’s Word reveals answers and helps us form clear stances on controversial issues. Unfortunately, when we try to share our beliefs in our stories, we can come across as condescending (at best) or openly hostile.

 

Issues like the ones I listed above are difficult to address in real life, and equally troublesome in fiction. Not only is offending readers bad for sales, but (more importantly) it prevents our books from reaching and influencing people who need exposure to truth.

 

Why Compassion Matters to Storytellers

When we want to deliver a message compassionately, we often assume that means we need to tiptoe and speak softly. But compassion is a mindset, not a method. The Holy Spirit can use our stories to change hearts, but the goal of a compassionate story shouldn’t be to drive in a point. A story about abortion should act as a shoulder to cry on for a teen facing an unexpected pregnancy. And a story about homosexuality should guide a depressed gay man away from his sin and toward hope.

 

Compassionate stories should seek to help hurting, confused people, not convince other intellectuals that a certain lifestyle or action is wrong. We have the Bible for that. Instead, we can tackle sensitive themes by developing compassion in three areas.

 

1. Honest Characters

Like most writing principles, compassion starts with our characters. A stereotyped character (such as an antagonistic, God-hating, singleminded philosophy professor) preaches at the reader (perhaps a kind atheistic professor who openly encourages healthy discussions in his classroom) with a skewed depiction.

 

Characters who display a false worldview shouldn’t be typecast in negative roles. Without honorable qualities, flaws, and an internal conflict, they won’t be realistic or relatable. They’ll be straw men set up to win an argument.

 

Homosexuals can be friendly and nice. Christians can be self-righteous and hypocritical. We all have faults. Be humble when writing about Christians, remembering that only through God’s grace are we on the road to heaven. Be charitable when writing about atheists, remembering that we are all made in the image of God.

 

Characters (whether right or wrong) who are deep, genuine, hurting, and lovable will draw conflicted readers in. If they see the characters struggling valiantly with the same problems that they’re suffering, they’ll become invested in the story instead of repulsed by it.

 

2. A Fair Setting

Confession: I once wrote a book about the underground church in a dystopian, atheistic future. An alcoholic general obsessively hunted down a saintly Christian population who never squabbled amongst themselves or even showed fear.

 

I won’t do that ever again.

 

A story’s setting needs to allow for a neutral analysis of the controversy, where people can interact without pointing guns at each other. To create this environment, we have to avoid three pitfalls:

 

  • Disproportion. If the hero is the only character defending Value A, then the thousands standing up for Value B automatically look like bullies. Conversely, if every character believes in Value A except for a few antagonists, then the novel will feel imbalanced.
  • Higher-power intervention. Don’t let the government, the church, or any other large institution choose a side. Keep the story on a personal, intimate level. Once higher-powers begin preaching morals, subtlety and compassion fall to the wayside.
  • Prejudice. If a sci-fi story is about border politics, and the facts are bent so that the illegal (literal) aliens infect earth with a crippling disease, readers won’t correlate the fictional version of the world with reality.

We need to place our characters in a setting that’s fair to all parties. Otherwise readers might bail before the plot even unfolds.

 

3. A Well-Selected Plot

In my underground church novel, the plot forced the characters into cheap archetypes, with the Christians as the heroes and the atheists playing the villains. But a compassionate story enables conversation without drawing unnecessary lines in the sand.

 

Instead of pitting different perspectives against each other, we can opt for gentler tactics. Two parallel (equally endearing) characters can journey through a story together, revealing the contrast in their worldviews by serving as foils to each other.

 

J. M. Barrie applies this technique in Peter Pan. Wendy enjoys, learns from, and grows out of childhood, whereas Peter obsesses over it and uses it to justify his poor choices. If Peter had been the antagonist, he and Wendy would never have been friends, and the story wouldn’t have carried the same level of emotional depth.

 

Cause and Effect: The Truth of Pretty Words

Earlier this year, I read In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire. It was full of beautiful, flowing sentences. But the story gave me a hollow feeling, especially this excerpt: “Home always shrinks in times of absence, always bleeds away some of its majesty, because what is home, after all, apart from the place one returns to when the adventure is over? Home is an end to glory, a stopping point when the tale is done.”

 

Those words sound wonderful and dance on the page. They also aren’t true, which left me empty and sad. Home is a haven of nourishment and rest and family.

 

As we raise our pens, remember that Jesus is our divine ally. Truth is beautiful, and without its power, our stories won’t sway hearts. Poetic prose doesn’t normally convert souls. Our task is to tell the best story we can with genuine compassion and an ache for the lost. When we accomplish that, God will use our words however He pleases.

17 Comments

  1. Savannah Grace

    So this is officially one of my favorite Story Embers posts – great job, Brandon! It was super helpful. Definitely going to be coming back to this one.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Oh wow. officially? Well, thanks. *is honored*

  2. Eden Anderson

    This has got to be one of my favorite Story Ember posts ever. This subject has been haunting me the past couple of years…I’m terrified that I’ll write things that just turn people away from the truth instead of to it. Questions have plagued me: How do I write about touchy subjects with compassion and grace? How can I show the truth in love? Should I even try to write hard things? If I do, will I just end up being one of those writers everybody hates?

    This post has been incredibly mind-opening and helpful. I love the point you made that we should seek to show compassion, not convict people.

    Reply
    • Eden Anderson

      Edit: I mean, stories should convict…but we need to leave that up to God, right?

    • Brandon Miller

      Isn’t that always the struggle? I think stories should and can convict, but they have to be very tactful in how they do it. A reader shouldn’t feel like the story is convicting them, rather the reader should observe the characters acting and reacting, and they might be convicted when they asses their own life in view of the story.

  3. Your Friendly Neighborhood INFP

    Addressing topics like these kind of freak me out so this was super helpful. Thank you!!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Glad to hear it. (All things being equal, I was kind of freaked out when I decided to write this article, so there’s that.)

  4. DRyser

    What an excellent article! I think the Holy Spirit is your ally in an attempt to speak the truth in love. I’m just puzzled by the suggestion to bring a “neutral analysis of the controversy.” Why not suggest employing a non-confrontational, not-in-your-face tone? Also puzzling is the suggestion to use “a setting that’s fair to all parties.” I would agree on a setting that appreciates the value of each person, yes, but not the appreciation of each person’s “truth.” This makes it sound like a book doesn’t have a message – or an author a position – on a controversial topic, and it is fine for a reader to reach whatever conclusion they want to hold to.
    I think a story is a perfect place to provide a person the opportunity to consider a challenging viewpoint without pointing guns or raising voices. I say fight to uphold truth and speak it, and pray unceasingly for God’s compassion in your hearts as you write and interact with people from opposing viewpoints. Our world is drowning in a sea of relativism and confusion, and truth delivered with compassion is a life preserver! May God bless you as you seek to use your gift to glorify Him.

    Reply
    • Taylor Clogston

      > I’m just puzzled by the suggestion to bring a “neutral analysis of the controversy.” Why not suggest employing a non-confrontational, not-in-your-face tone? Also puzzling is the suggestion to use “a setting that’s fair to all parties.” I would agree on a setting that appreciates the value of each person, yes, but not the appreciation of each person’s “truth.”

      I disagree, but I think you and Brandon might just be using different definitions =P

      I believe Brandon is recommending fairness and intellectual honesty, and not recommending the author have no stake in the moral outcome. Moral judgment should come from the realistic reaping of what characters sow, and that is absolutely possible (I’d argue it’s even ideal) in a setting that tries to adhere to reality as much as possible. i.e., one neutral and fair.

      As I understand it, that’s Brandon’s argument.

    • Brandon Miller

      Taylor expressed what I was trying to get across. We shouldn’t express a wishy-washy anyone’s truth goes worldview, instead we should trust the truth of our Christian worldview to come out on top without having to prop it up with plot-devices.

  5. Taylor Clogston

    Great article, Brandon! Not only is this my favorite SE article you’ve written, but it’s one of the best SE articles in general. I especially found your point about disproportion helpful.

    Re your point on pretty words (prose is my favorite part of writing, so spend a lot of time reading and thinking about it), I think when our prose or general technical quality is higher, we have a heavier burden to make sure we’re delivering valuable truth.

    If someone poorly writes a story with a nasty, antagonal Mormon, then most people seeing it will roll their eyes and walk away. If someone beautifully writes a story with that same Mormon, it becomes more plausible that the author absolutely knew what they were doing and undertook this writing with malice in their heart.

    It’s a pretty dangerous aspect of writing. There’s a reason The Da Vinci Code harmfully touched more people’s hearts than did the nonfiction books Brown used as inspiration.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Well, I’m flattered, thanks!
      I agree with what you said about the prettiness of words. Pretty words can definitely be used to beautify evil or highlight truth, but my point was that truth is absolute and it will inherently add power to your story.

  6. Ariel Ashira

    I always love your articles and find them really helpful! Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Abby Baines

    This was really good, thanks!

    Reply
  8. Jess

    Regarding your excerpt from In an Absent Dream… Those words about coming home are indeed true for some, and it isn’t always a sad and hollow thing. My husband and I love traveling, and have driven on multi-day, cross-country trips a number of times over the years, including a couple of five-day drives with our two young kids. We LOVE being away from our house, whether out about town on errands or crossing two time zones in a mini van crammed with travel supplies and clothes and stir-crazy kids. Coming home to the same old fixed location is a letdown. But that’s because we feel like turtles, carrying our homes on our backs; wherever we’re together as a family, we ARE home. Home is not a building, to us. We find being trapped in one place, “at home” (our house), to be restrictive, entrapping, frustrating, and slowly smothering. The stars in our eyes dim and our imaginations and aspirations go flat and grey when we’ve been stuck in one place for too long. The open road calls. Bring us that far horizon. Together.

    All of that to say that whatever might be put in a book will strike chords in some hearts while repelling others. Different experiences and different preferences. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Julie

    Hello! I’d like to thank you for this post, but more widely all of you for this website.

    I am not Christian, not in the sense that I believe in a personal God, or in the Bible as the Word of God. To me God is more like an IT than a He and I guess I’m closer to a sort of mix between stoicism or taosim regarding my beliefs. However, the fundamentals ethics of Christianity are still similar to my own.

    Wanting to be a webcomic author, I still work hard on my story as I would with a novel. And I struggle a lot with the topic of this article, because I often end up too preachy in a way that I know I would hate if I was on the other side of the preach. Topics like right and wrong, abortion, homosexuality and gender are very important, and controversial topics nowadays, with which I myself struggled my whole life and still do. Since I’d like to help other people understand that love and compassion are crucial but do not equate blind tolerance and chaos and that there is a natural order that is to be followed, this is really hard. I think working through metaphors instead of presenting the subject directly might help, at least that’s what I’m trying to do, but it’s still really delicate to stay subtle and not preachy.

    But anyway I’m really glad to have found your website. It is a powerful inspiration and a real comfort for me. Thank you very much.

    Reply

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