Friday, February 15, 2019

7 Tips for Using Story Writing to Raise Awareness for a Cause

I talk a lot on this blog about how there's no such thing as "just a story." The stories we write end up having themes whether we intended them to or not, so we may as well embrace that and write stories with strong themes.

But what about stories that raise awareness for real-life issues? What about stories that address problems like slavery or work to raise awareness for something like disability? How does one go about doing that?

You've come to the right place. Here are seven tips for using your story writing to raise awareness for real-life causes. I'm mostly discussing this in terms of writing speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, horror), but some of these tips apply to all genres.

7 Tips for Using Story Writing to Raise Awareness for a Cause

1. Walk the walk. Don't just write the...write...? Write the writing? I clearly didn't think this sentence through, but I'm committed to it now, so....Onward! Don't write about a cause just because you are trying to win Social Justice Warrior of the year. Instead, write a story that naturally raises awareness for a cause that you care about. Often times you'll find that a cause naturally pops up in your writing because that is where your heart is. Don't fight it. Go with it. Nurture it. Yes, you can absolutely choose a cause before you start writing, but this isn't always necessary. So if you can't think of a cause: Relax. Walk the walk in your personal life. Everything else will follow, and then can be polished up during editing.

2. Make the cause compatible with your story. There's no need to shoehorn a cause into your story. Instead, make sure that the cause is ingrained in the story. Work the cause into your world-building, your plot, and/or your character developments. This allows you to present the cause in a natural, organic way, rather than coming across as preachy (more on that later). Not sure what this looks like? I have examples:
  • The Order of the Twelve Tribes by Daley Downing and autism. Daley Downing is an autistic indie author who writes fantasy featuring autistic characters. It's awesome. She is able to raise awareness for autism by showing how some neurotypical characters have mistreated or misunderstood the neurodivergent ones...and by also showing neurotypical characters who treat their neurodivergent friends well. The treatment of these autistic characters are important plot points within the story: It moves character arcs, helps convey important world-building information, and more. So not only do Downing's autistic characters meld perfectly with her plot, but they also allow neurotypical readers to learn more about autism. It's a great way to spin a compelling story while also raising awareness. Here Order of the Twelve Tribes series can be found here. 
3. Do your research. Yes, you have to do real-world research for fantasy writing. You thought you could escape it, but you can't.

Evil Star Wars character cackles maniacally gif.

This research is especially important when it comes to portraying a cause. For instance, if you are raising awareness for an issue like slavery by writing an enslaved character, you'll want to research the physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual effects slavery can have one a person. This will help you accurately portray your character and your cause in a true and honest way. No, you shouldn't just copy and paste information. Instead, weave these pieces of information into the story (see tip 2).

4. Make the cause approachable by relating it to the characters. Yes, this is similar to tip 1, but it's a little different. Just bear with me. Some issues are very serious and hard to approach. Maybe they're difficult to approach because they are so horrific (like human sex trafficking), or maybe they're hard to approach because many readers simply have a complete lack of knowledge in the area (such as disability). When an issue/cause seems hard to approach, it's important to connect that cause to a character that readers like and/or can identify with. This instantly makes a reader more able to empathize with a cause. Thus, this character is your "in." They're like a trojan horse: You can sneak causes into a story via this character. Here's a totally-not-self-plugging example:
  • Skies of Dripping Gold by Yours Truly and intellectual disability. Every character in Skies of Dripping Gold has some type of disability, but for this example I'm focusing on Cole. He is an extremely loveable character: He's loyal, he's kind, and he's constantly in search of the truth. He also has an unnamed disability that I shaped after various intellectual disabilities. People have the unfortunate tendency to see disabled people (especially intellectually disabled people) as alien. By making Cole a well-fleshed-out character, I allowed readers to see that he's not an alien. He's not weird. He's awesome. My hope is that people walk away from the story with a little more insight into disability, and a little more empathy for people whose brains don't work exactly like theirs. If I had simply tried to hammer the "intellectually disabled people are people, too" idea home, readers would have found this preachy and thus would have turned away. 
5. Resist the urge to draw direct parallels. Look. You don't have to be Captain Obvious when championing a cause. In fact, when it comes to writing, it's best to go the opposite route. Speculative fiction gives you room to create entirely new social systems. This means that a cause from our world probably shouldn't be exactly the same in your fictional world. For instance, if you wanted to raise awareness for causes like adoption, you wouldn't want the adoption system in your fantasy world to operate just like the adoption system in your country. That wouldn't make very much sense, would it? Feel free to get creative. Don't be a rip-off.
  • Malfunction Trilogy by J.E. Purrazzi and slavery. J.E. Purrazzi writes cyberpunk with a lot of spectacular, creative world-building. She uses her writing to explore causes such as slavery. However, she does this in a really interesting way that doesn't quite parallel the slavery we have in our world. In Malfunction, cyborgs are created and used to fight in a war against terrifying monsters. Humans control these cyborgs and force them to live and die in horrific manners. Now, real-life slaves are not, of course, cyborgs. However, while they may not be forced to fight fictional monsters, modern slaves are forced into activities against their will. The parallel is definitely there. It's not a direct parallel, but it is still powerful and important. Part of it's power comes from that fact that it lets readers make the slavery connection themselves, thus making readers more receptive to the concept. 
6. Don't preach. Nobody likes this. It makes readers want to smack you over the head with the pulpit you're thumping. Seriously. Don't go there.

Captain America saying "Just don't" gif.

Some good ways to avoid preaching are to:
  • Follow the above tips. 
  • Show multiple angles. Let us see the cause from several different character's points of view.  This not only gives your readers a better view of the issue, but it also comes across as less preachy and more holistic. Win win. 
  • Learn with the reader. You need to be humble enough to admit that you don't have all the answers. Instead of trying to cram a solution down your reader's throat, instead present the issue and come alongside them as you both try to find solutions. 
7. Don't feel the need to limit yourself to one cause. A story can raise awareness for more than one cause. Mind-blowing, I know. You know how humans can care about more than one thing at a time? The same goes for stories. In fact, delving into more than one cause is natural and helps you avoid the horrific preaching mentioned above. If you are truly walking the walk (see tip 1), you'll find that you care about a lot of different causes. Me? I care about the disabled community, about ending slavery, and about a thousand other things. A lot of these causes crop up in my writing because of this. Don't limit yourself to just one issue.

Okay. I can't think of a way to conclude this post, so....

Go away.

But first: What causes are you raising awareness for in your writing? Have any tips you'd like to add? Leave a comment below!

Then you can go away. Thanks.

Related articles:
Why You Should Intentionally Write Messages Into Your Stories
Challenging Writers to Create Stories with Meaning
The Importance of Asking Why: 4 Questions You Should Ask Yourself as a Writer

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  1. It's so interesting that the post today is on causes. Just this morning, I was thinking of an idea for a dystopian story where in this world, society has placed such a high importance on the math, science, and technology fields that they've basically eliminated the arts. No one is allowed to "waste time" pursuing artistic endeavors, and if they're caught doing so they can be sentenced to jail time or even executed. The story is a way to raise awareness on the fact that as a society we already tend to place a higher value on math, science, or technology than we do on the arts. When a school runs short on funding, what's the first thing to go? The art programs, music, dance, etc. I don't think this is right cause sometimes those programs can help kids so much more than any math or science class. So that's one cause that I care about.

  2. One of the things I like about writing is how it can help me discover what I believe when it comes to particularly causes. I don't always go into a story with a particular theme in mind, but they always seem to creep in one way or another. Great post, Hannah!

  3. Hannah, thanks for sharing this post! You offer such an interesting perspective to writing that I hadn't really considered. My book The Torch Keepers wasn't meant to address a specific cause, but the original thought stemmed from the pain caused by terrorists and me wanting to make a difference. Having a hunger to change the world for Jesus is definitely where it has to all begin. ♥

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  5. Man, I needed this! I always give my characters issues a modern-world teen could meet - because I'm not mature enough to create a character, different from... well, me - a modern-world teen.
    Here's a list of problems to raise awareness about I have sneaked into characters:
    - Suicide
    - Bullying
    - Controlling parents
    - When your parent dies
    - When your parent abuses you
    - The survivor complex
    - The hero complex
    - When you grow up in the streets and become a gang leader
    - Rape... I have an idea, but haven't applied it yet. Any tips?

    I would be glad to hear what problems and causes do you guys add to your wi¡riting!


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