How to Write Controversial Material

Over the years, I’ve worked with controversial material, both as a writer and a developer. Some of it never saw the light of day (for various reasons). Some of it did, but was controversial for the wrong reasons (like the fact that gay characters exist). But over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to handle it, and I have metrics of when and how best to do it. Before I dive in, though, a warning. Everyone draws these lines differently. What I consider mundane, another person would consider radical. The point of this isn’t to argue what should or shouldn’t be controversial, but what the writer and client (assuming they are two different people) agree is controversial for their audience. Writing dinosaur erotica for an audience of dinosaur erotica readers isn’t controversial in that context, for example, but I expect it would raise eyebrows in other genres.

Be Controversial For A Reason

Once in a while, I would get material from a writer that seemed to push buttons purely because there were buttons to push. The controversy added nothing to the quality of the material, and maybe even detracted from it. More than once I’ve added such material into my writing, only to pull it out because I didn’t feel it brought anything valuable to the table. The first rule should always be “is the material improved by addressing a controversial topic?”1 For example, I once wrote religious extremist characters for a role-playing game that were from the Middle East, based in the United States. Nothing about the characters required them to be from the Middle East, so I changed their nationality, and I don’t think anyone even noticed.

Have The Controversy Resonate In The Material

If there’s a reason for the controversy, it should connect to the material you’re writing for exactly as long as it makes sense, and no more. The controversy shouldn’t drag out, drawing attention to itself as a bold statement of one sort or another. It shouldn’t be hidden or diminished, either. If there’s value to the material, present it confidently, and then move on. For example, in my Werewolf: The Apocalypse story “The Magadon Job,” one of the narrator characters turned out to be gay.2 While that fact alone I don’t personally consider controversial, I know that there aren’t many gay characters in Werewolf, so I debated how much value that brought. In the end, I kept it for two reasons: Werewolf is a game about sexual politics (breeding in specific ways is part of the in-game laws of werewolf society), and the line was there to offer an observation about another character. It added value, but it wasn’t a big deal to the character or the story, so I didn’t make it a big deal either.

Exclusive Opinions Should Be In The Mouths Of Characters, Not Narrators

Sometimes, controversy excludes people instead of including them.3 I don’t believe that exclusive ideas and material should be entirely excised from fiction and games, but it should be firmly in the domain of a particular character’s opinion. Further, the closer the character is to a “viewpoint” character or narrator, the closer the material comes to being objectively exclusive, even if it isn’t the writer’s intent. Moving such material further from the viewpoint makes it clearer that the character has controversial opinions, not the writer. For example, in “Quantum Crisis,” I wrote about a militant group called Al-Shabab. It was necessary to set them up as a motivating factor for the protagonist (a doctor from Nairobi), but I didn’t want a doctor to be calling them terrorists per se — just acknowledging that they were dangerous. So, I invented an American general who was divorced from my viewpoint character to focus on that detail. He not only brought up opinions in a way that didn’t muddy the protagonists perspective, but it was also a minor point of tension with other characters, making for more interesting dialogue.

Don’t Flinch

The worst thing you can do is half-ass such material. If you think it adds to what you’re writing, if you think it’s handled to the right amount, and if you think it’s handled in a way that doesn’t muddy the viewpoint, then write it as well as anything else in your story. If you don’t believe in the material, it’s better to cut it than to put it in and not sell it as hard as you can. If your story really needs a racist antagonist to give tension to your protagonist, make that character as racist as you can make them. Don’t flinch away from it.4 To be clear, this is not the same as making the controversial material valid or sympathetic. “Not flinching” is not the same as embodying the material or defending it on an objective level. You are not your characters, and it’s okay if they act and do things that you would never condone. You can defend the inclusion of negative material to make something better without needing to agree with it on a personal level.

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  1. Really, everything should be assessed by the metric “is the material improved by including this?” This isn’t really a different question, but since we’re talking about controversial material here, I’m clarifying for the sake of discussion.
  2. And he really did “turn out” to be gay. Sometimes my characters surprise me as I’m writing them.
  3. There’s a whole argument about the value of inclusive vs. exclusive controversy, but I’m not going to get into that here.
  4. The same goes for violence and sex in fiction — if it adds something to the material, do it right and stand by it.