Tackling a Sensitive Topic in my Novel

Should I write it? Do I dare? But it’s such a sensitive topic.

This, in a nutshell, was the essence of my mental grappling as I sat down to outline my current work in progress: The Haunting of Tess. After all, developing a main character to whom a sensitive issue is central requires a lot of work. To achieve an authentic representation of a disorder, tragedy, or state of differently-abledness (to name but a few sensitive topics), a writer needs to deep-dive and explore all the different facets. Then she needs to decide which parts she is going to pull out and apply to her character, and determine how these particular aspects will manifest themselves in what is (reality check) a fictional story.

That’s heavy stuff! The last thing I want to do is get it wrong. That would be a disservice to those whose lives are actually afflicted by whatever topic I choose. Or worse, I can’t risk being so accurate that my character is an inauthentic poster child for my chosen sensitive subject, thus becoming unrealistic and unrelatable.

I call to mind a conversation I once had with my mother. After reading a book (the name and author of which shall remain nameless; they’re not important) in which the main character had contact with a person diagnosed with Aspberger’s, Mom and I had a brief but illuminating exchange. As we chatted, it became clear that the character in her book had a long list of very classic characteristics… suspiciously long, actually. So many that, when I spoke of the real-life individuals I knew—and still know—who have received an official diagnosis, we both had a hard time connecting their real-life Aspberger’s with the categorized list of identifiers my mother’s fictional character displayed.

In reality, the individuals I know who live (and thrive!) with Aspberger’s are wonderfully unique. Sometimes you can’t even tell between an AS characteristic and a standard personality trait that anyone might display. For example, while Wikipedia says, “Physical clumsiness and unusual use of language are common,” one of my real-life examples is frustratingly clumsy but speaks in no unusual way, while the other is not at all clumsy but definitely enjoys wandering down the unusual language avenue… ad nauseam! One displays a classic lack of empathy and struggles to recognize it, while another recognizes it well and works hard to manage the trait, or remove herself from social situations when she cannot.

My point with this little sidebar thought is that any sensitive subject is never going to be perfectly “bang on.” As a writer, you are not going to be able to create a character so perfectly [insert sensitive topic here]-ish that there leaves no room for questioning of your interpretation by readers. And that’s okay. We still need to tackle these sensitive subjects because what good book doesn’t?

If I look at my reading list over the summer, each book explores a topic that is sensitive to someone, and that need to be handled with care. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett delves into the levels of racism in the 1950s and 60s that exists within communities of colour against one another, while Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman explores the nuances of a teenaged boy falling in love with another man over the course of an Italian summer. Both authors have done their homework and internalized what it must be like to be their main characters. To feel what they feel and interpret how said sensitive subject affects their daily lives, their choices and their behaviours. And neither book tries to be the quintessential representation of the black experience in the 60s or the gay experience in the 80s. They are each but one story, one set of lives, out of millions of possible iterations.

Which brings me to my latest work in progress, The Haunting of Tess. I have stuck true to form and have decided to explore a flawed character to which a sensitive subject applies, even though I have no personal experience. To justify my approach, I point to a post in Writers’ Digest where author Jessica Verdi tells about writing her novel My Life After Now in which a teenage girl learns she is HIV positive as a direct result of her own actions. To write a realistic account of what her protagonist is going through, Verdi says she wasn’t so focused on the “message” of the book. Instead, she was focused on her character. She writes, “This one (fictional) girl’s journey is just that: one girl’s journey. Though people with HIV/AIDS certainly do have some shared experiences, their stories are ultimately all different. And so Lucy’s experience with HIV is only part of her story. She’s also a daughter, an ex-girlfriend, an enemy, a student, a teenager. Once I knew who she was as a person, the rest came easy.”

I find this very similar to what I’m doing with my character, Tess Radcliffe. Here is where I’m at: The topic I am tackling is brain injury and how a person’s life changes because of it. Tess doesn’t suffer from every symptom of head trauma, because if I were to write that, she would become a caricature, rather than a character. But one symptom I have focused on for Tess is that she has become… promiscuous.

Clearly, here is where I need to be sensitive. Here is the particular piece that I grappled the most with. This is not a titillating thrill thrown in with little sensitivity to those who suffer from this characteristic of head trauma in real life. And quite frankly, I didn’t choose to focus on this aspect of head trauma at random—it felt like something that needed to be in the story based on how my plot is unfolding. To make her promiscuity an authentic part of her experience, I’ve had to get inside Tess’s mind and explore what makes her so. Is it a lack of being able to identify consequence? An absence of inhibition? A reaction to the loss of things she once could do and now cannot? All of this has to play out in a realistic context that includes Tess’s own thoughts and feelings. I admit, for most of it I am guessing. I am extrapolating what I’m reading and researching, and I am applying it to one individual, as one possibility. But ultimately, it’s Tess’s journey, and I am writing it. Being sensitive to the topic of brain trauma means being empathetic to the person who is suffering with it first and foremost.

Tackling difficult subjects as a writer is something we all do. No one in life has never encountered their own difficult subject in some form or another. I think author Ellen Marie Wiseman says it best when she says in her post on Books By Women, that by writing difficult subjects, she wants to offer “hope that humans have the opportunity to grow and change, and the strength to survive almost anything.”

Well… I’ve chosen my sensitive topic and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to see it through. And I’m praying like mad that I get it right—for the sake of every person who has been affected by brain injury in real life.

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