December 20

Taboo Subjects in Fiction

I was recently thinking about a book I read a while back called Damage by Josephine Hart. If you aren’t familiar with it, the basic premise is that a British politician has an affair with his daughter-in-law. It’s a dark, twisted tale, impeccably written, with an unreliable narrator. Ms. Hart does a fantastic job of making the protagonist almost sympathetic. I could understand his reasoning – not that I agreed with it or condoned it – but I’m always impressed when a writer can take a vile character and make you understand where they are coming from. Obviously, cheating on your spouse with your daughter-in-law is repulsive in and of itself, but to make it so a reader gets pulled into the story and somewhat sympathizes with these awful characters, well, that’s some damn fine writing.

But that, in turn, got me thinking about taboo subjects in fiction. Probably one of the most famous is how Vladimir Nabokov handled the subject matter in his novel, Lolita. Once again, an unreliable narrator leads the reader down a dark and winding path. I read the novel once several years ago and it still resonates in my head. It was beautifully written, although incredibly hard to read in some parts due to the abusive situation. I appreciate that Nabokov was able to write about such an unpleasant thing in a way that didn’t go into great detail about the abuse, but conveyed enough of it to make me uncomfortable.

I think that novels like Lolita helped to open the door for writers to tackle taboo subjects in their fiction. However, I do want to take a moment to differentiate here between a writer taking on a taboo subject like child abuse in a though-provoking manner and someone who writes about these topics just for the shock value. Sure, some readers like to be shocked and disturbed by abuse and gore and violence just for the thrill of it. But I’m not a fan of that kind of writing. It’s like watching a horror movie that relies on tons of blood and gore for the shock value, without really making an attempt to actually scare the viewer. What’s the point?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with inserting taboo subjects into fiction. One of the things I love about fiction is that it allows us to address uncomfortable things, to educate and learn, to bring dark things into the light. A good example of this would be Catholic priests abusing children. I don’t think anyone would disagree this is a touchy subject, taboo to some, but it’s something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. Fifty years ago no one probably would have gone near a topic like this for a novel. Too controversial. Too much backlash. But in our current society it’s not considered as bad and there have been several novels written with this as the theme or a plot point. Sure, there’s still backlash and people calling for book banning (or burning…welcome to the witch trials), but at least it’s something we can admit is happening.

Of course, writing about taboo subjects can reduce the potential readership. Some people don’t want to read things that make them uncomfortable. I get that. It’s like me not wanting to read about animal abuse. I have a difficult time getting past animals getting hurt or killed in stories. I can accept it and move on if it’s intrinsic to the plot, but it isn’t easy. And if a character hurts purposely hurts an animal…oh, I start hoping they come to a very unpleasant end in the story.

In fact, and this is slightly embarrassing, I read a story man years ago (I can’t remember the title) where a male character beats a dog, but never faces any repercussions from it. After I finished reading the story I was fuming about that…it wasn’t right! I needed justice! So I wrote my own epilogue for the story where a pack of dogs corners this character and proceed to get their revenge. It was therapeutic and satisfying.

With all this said (or written), I wonder if there’s really any topic that can’t be written about, fictionalized and explored. I feel that as long as it’s a well-written story and isn’t going for basic shock value, then I don’t see any reason why anything should be off limits. It’s all in how the material is handled. Sure, writing about abuse (child, animal, spousal, drug/alcohol) may turn off some readers, but that’s going to happen no matter what you’re writing. I mean, if you’re writing Gothic romance, there’s going to be a segment of the population that isn’t interested. Same goes for any genre or topic. The point is to simply tell a good story, and if you have a character or characters who are bad people doing bad things, well, it’s not that different from life.

When it comes down to bare bones, isn’t fiction really just a reflection of reality? It’s possible that fictionalizing difficult topics can help to make them more palatable. What I mean is, there may be a real situation that people ignore because it’s so uncomfortable. But when fictionalized in a novel they better understand and digest it because they’re reading about fictional characters. Removing that roadblock can help to educate and spread understanding.

What do you think? Do you feel there are subjects that are too taboo for fiction?


Copyright 2021 Richard Bist. All rights reserved.

Posted 2019-12-20 by RB in category "Books", "Writing


  1. By Lila Lockheart on

    For me, there isn’t anything off-limits. It isn’t that there’s ‘nothing sacred’; the process itself is something ‘sacred’. Like you say, some people write expressly for shock value. This is okay only inasmuch as it doesn’t objectify people – and even then it serves as a barometer for our society’s conscience.
    Many people use writing to explore or release past trauma. Denying them that wouldn’t feel right. Not that you were suggesting that! it’s only my perception.

    ‘Taboo’ subjects often find their way into my stories. Sometimes that’s me expressing things. Sometimes it just makes sense for the story. Because they’re things that people feel squeamish confronting, I feel (and my life experiences inform my feelings) that they’re not uncommon things. Some are flowers blooming in dark neglected places. Others are worms writhing under blankets.

    1. By RB (Post author) on

      Oh, I love the last two sentences of your comment…poetic and a perfect way to describe taboo subjects!



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