Paula Dáil ~
Well-written fiction is a powerful way to make a social statement. Well-told, message-driven fictional stories take up rent-free residence in the reader’s psyche and refuse to leave. Whether they want to or not, readers become landlords whose tenants are nearly impossible to evict, which is exactly what the writer hopes will occur. But achieving this goal is a daunting challenge and isn’t for the faint of heart.
Taking on a volatile, emotional topic, as I did in Fearless, when I took up the cause for women’s reproductive autonomy and stood down the Catholic Church who was denying them this right, invited both praise and heavy, sometimes ugly criticism. The key to navigating this minefield is enjoying the praise when it comes, wholeheartedly owning the message and refusing to back down when attacked. The writer and the story are a collaborative partnership, and there must never be any “Well – I didn’t really mean it that way…” statements that weaken you and your message. Believe in what you say and be willing to stick by it, no matter what, because this validates your message as forceful and worthy of notice. Otherwise, don’t waste yours or your readers’ time.
Once you are emotionally prepared to take on the social message challenge, the next step is to imagine a story that effectively transmits the message you want to convey. This is harder than you might imagine, and before you commit the first word to paper, you must confront several questions:
First, identify why you feel so passionately about an issue that you can no longer ignore that voice in your head pushing you to speak up and refusing to let you rest until you do. What about the issue has you in its grip and won’t let you go? Is it a moral concern driven by a sense of social justice? Is it something you need to protest, or a situation you want to illuminate, or all of these?
Fearless is a good example. I strongly believe women have the inherent right to control their bodies and that it is morally wrong for a patriarchal religious institution, or any institution for that matter, to claim otherwise. The story I created describes how one woman takes up the fight for reproductive rights within a male-dominated institution that believes it has the last word on women’s reproductive choices, pushing against the patriarchy controlling women’s lives.
Second, decide whether your passion flows from wanting to advocate for or protest against something – or both. Protesting is writing out of an emotional space dominated by anger and sometimes fear, while advocacy arises from firm conviction and a thirst for justice. Each is equally valuable, and when cleverly woven together can be very powerful.
Third, do your homework. It is vital to have a firm grasp of both sides of the issue because the conflict the story seeks to resolve flows out of the tension between the two perspectives and while fictional, must rest upon factual reality. For example, if you are arguing, as I did in Fearless, that the Catholic Church’s anti-birth control policy is resulting in more Catholic women than any other religious group seeking abortions, weave the source of that information into the narrative. Don’t risk your credibility or the possibility of losing the reader by giving into the temptation to wildly exaggerate just to make a point. Saying nine out of ten abortions are performed on Catholic women, when the real figure is slightly over one in four, isn’t helpful to the message or the writer’s legitimacy, and without rock-solid legitimacy your story and your message fail.
Fourth, focus on character development, because this is where the rubber meets the road. The protagonist transmits the social message, and this happens best through an organic process whereby the writer either becomes the character or gets out of the way and allows the character to write the story. In Fearless, Sister Maggie Corrigan, a fire-breathing feminist nun with a sharp tongue, the courage of her convictions, and the willingness to confront a patriarchy that views women as servant wives and baby machines became my voice protesting these injustices and advocating for change. As her character evolved, I repeatedly asked the “What would Maggie do?” question. Soon we developed a close working relationship that pushed the story forward.
Maggie and I never became friends, but I grew to profoundly appreciate that one of her strengths was that she didn’t care about cultivating friendships because that took time and energy away from what she wanted to accomplish. I respected and deeply admired her for her courage and commitment to do all that she could to make the world better for women, regardless of the personal costs. Her cause was enough for her. Everything else was meaningless fluff and a waste of effort better spent on pushing against the patriarchy dominating Catholic women’s lives.
Once the writing process has begun, you must be brave enough to let the story flow in whatever direction it needs to go. It is very important not to hold back, to allow your characters to say what they want to say, no matter how outrageous. Get it all out on the page and deal with it because in order to grow into something the reader won’t quickly or easily forget, both the story and the message need a strong foundation.
Finally, fiction writers intent upon transmitting a social message do well to draw strength from their foremothers of fiction who wrote stories with intense and powerful social messages – Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with The Wind; Eudora Welty, Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, Harriet Beecher Stowe and so on. Read and study these writers. Allow their words and their message to change you, then celebrate what you’ve learned from them by creating your own story, with your own powerful social message. It won’t be easy, but if you succeed, it will be enormously worthwhile.
Paula Dáil is a self-proclaimed fire-breathing feminist and life-long social justice advocate for women. With a PhD from The University of Wisconsin–Madison, Dáil is currently an Emerita Research Professor of social welfare and public policy. Fearless is Dáil’s tenth book, and she has won several national and international awards for her previous nonfiction titles, including a Booklist Starred Review. She is also a two-time Council for Wisconsin Writers Nonfiction Book of the Year award winner. Connect with Paula Dáil on her website or on Facebook at @paula.dail.73.