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How to Use Fiction to Explore Contemporary Social Issues

Author Kelly Oliver explains how getting inside other people’s heads can help fiction writers learn to explore contemporary social issues.

I’ve been writing nonfiction books for almost twenty years, often on difficult subjects such as sexual violence, assisted reproductive technologies, oppression, capital punishment, genetic engineering, and war.

Two years ago, I wrote my first novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery, which featured a subplot about campus rape. My second novel in The Jessica James series, COYOTE, revolved around human trafficking on the Blackfeet Reservation. And, the latest, FOX, tackles the hidden world of IVF, assisted reproductive technologies, and genetic engineering.

This guest post is by Kelly Oliver. Oliver is the award-winning author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF (July 2016), COYOTE (August 2016), and most recently FOX (May 2017). Her first novel, WOLF, won the IPPY Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, is a finalist for the Forward Magazine award for best mystery, and was voted #1 Women's Mysteries on Goodreads. When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of thirteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as campus rape, reproductive technologies, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her work has been translated into eight languages. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs.

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When I started writing mysteries, I made a conscious choice to let my nonfiction research inform my fiction. The fact that I’d already done the research was, of course, an advantage for writing the novels. I had extensive knowledge of some of the issues from my previous research efforts. But, I quickly discovered that writing fiction enriched my nonfiction writing, too. Writing novels gave me new ways of approaching tough issues I’d been thinking about throughout my career as a philosophy professor.

I wrote my first novel after researching a nonfiction book on the connection between images of strong girls giving as good as they got in films such as The Hunger Games and Divergent at the same time as weekly reports of unconscious girls being sexually assaulted on campus. Of course, I was stunned to learn of the pervasiveness of rape on college campuses, but even more, I was shocked to discover that some frat boys and college athletes actually drugged girls with rape drugs to render them semi-conscious. I was so shaken by this research project that my turn to fiction was a kind of self-defense against the harsh reality of sexual violence. In my invented world, the girls would fight back, and together defeat the rapists. I knew that a novel set on a college campus featuring young women had to deal with the issue of campus rape. But, in my imagined world, young women would have each other’s backs to prevent sexual violence. And anyone who messed with these tough, but vulnerable young women, would get their ass kicked. Call it a sort of feminist revenge fantasy to counter-balance all of the horrible stuff I’ve uncovered in my nonfiction research. Writing fiction became a personal compensation for me, a way to imagine a better world, and a different future for young women.

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I decided to make my novels center around contemporary women’s issues, many of which I’d researched in my nonfiction work. It was important to me to try to raise awareness of issues that often remain in the shadows because they are too difficult to confront head-on. I thought if I could tell a compelling story with rich characters in settings readers could relate to, and then move the plot along with page-turning action, sprinkled with a large dose of humor, then I could shine a light on hard issues in a way that wasn’t threatening or preachy. My primary goal is to create an entertaining story while bringing these ripped-from-the-headlines issues into my fiction. In order to keep readers hooked, the novels have to be fun and engaging. This way, I hope to reach more readers than I could with the nonfiction alone. Through a compelling story, you can get readers to think about things they may not have before.

But in addition to getting readers to think about issues, I’ve found that in fiction I can explore controversial topics from different vantage points. This is a great advantage of writing fiction. You have to get into other people’s heads. It’s one thing to describe different viewpoints or opinions in nonfiction books, it’s quite another to inhabit them and make them come alive in a novel. In order to make characters with differing perspectives on the same issue, an author needs to find a way to understand, if not sympathize with, viewpoints other than their own. This is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing fiction, getting into other people’s heads. You have to understand and respect even your bad guys.

For example, in my latest novel, FOX, two characters, both medical students, have opposing viewpoints on the ethics of genetic engineering. Jack, who is studying abnormal psychiatry, believes we can’t control evolution and life is ruled by chance. His nemesis, Max, is a geneticist who thinks he can perfect the human race by designing better people. Then there is our heroine, Jessica James, the cowgirl philosopher, who asks Max what he means by “better”—can he engineer people to be more ethical, more compassionate, and to treat each other better? Or, can he just make them smarter and stronger? These themes play out through each of the three characters in different ways that take up various sides of the genetic engineering debate, all the while weaving a rich story of hubris and humility. In my nonfiction, I could describe different positions on genetic engineering; but in my fiction, I can make them come alive. To do that, I’ve had to learn to distill the issues to their crystalline form. The trade-off is that while you can’t explore issues in depth in fiction the way you can in nonfiction, you can breathe life into them and make them relevant to readers in new ways. You can show what it feels like to believe passionately in something rather than merely describe the arguments pro and con.

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Imagining inhabiting different world-views, and having different passions, enriches my nonfiction writing. I’m learning to let my experience writing fiction inform my nonfiction writing. I want to give the reader a strong motivation to turn that next page. Putting the reader into a relatable perspective while showing them something new is the challenge of both fiction and nonfiction. Both are a matter of opening up alternative ways of looking at the world.

Ever since I was young, I’ve wondered what it would be like to be someone else. As I walk through a shopping mall or an airport, different people capture my imagination and I invent stories about their lives, and wonder what it is like to see the world through their eyes. Writing fiction gives me a chance to explore the world through other people’s eyes. I have to imagine lives other than my own, and characters that have radically different ways of seeing the world around them. In this way, I can explore different perspectives on the world. In an important sense, all of my nonfiction work, especially in philosophy, has been about embracing different perspectives on our shared world. Fiction is an adventure in perspective, a way of traveling the world in the imagination.

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