Hello! Welcome back to my series about writer worries, where I chat about common writer questions. (If you’re interested in other posts in the series, you can read about “What If Someone Steals My Ideas?” and “How Do I Know If My Writing Is Good?”

Lots of writers worry about whether it’s okay to write about their subject matter. Here are a few issues that come up a lot!

 

Is It Okay For Me To Write About This? #diversity #female characters #copyright #dark #too personal

 

 

“I deal with violent and graphic subject matter in my writing. How far is too far?” 

With this question, I think you just need to be very clear about your intentions as a writer. What kind of effect do you want to have on your audience? And do you feel good about desiring that effect?

You may put a hero through terrible times in order to get the audience to feel more for that hero and experience a stronger sense of triumph at the end. This might even inspire readers who are going through less dire–but still difficult–real-life trials of their own. Those are good intentions.

On the other hand, if you’re creating a world filled with atrocities, with no glimmer of hope, I think it’s at least worth asking yourself what you’re trying to achieve with your audience and what you see as your calling as a writer.

Of course, you can’t be responsible for all readers’ reactions to your work. All you can do is be clear about your own goals.

 

 

“I’m inspired by these song lyrics/this movie/this TV show. Is that okay?”

Lots of people think that quoting song lyrics or poems in a story is fair game, but that’s not correct. It’s a violation of copyright unless the work is old enough to be in the public domain.

Often, song lyrics in particular are more meaningful to the author than the readers anyway, particularly if the readers have never heard the whole song. By pushing yourself to find a different solution, you’ll likely wind up with something that resonates with your audience even more.

Unlike specific quotes, general ideas aren’t copyrightable. If you want The Avengers and decide you want to write a story about a bunch of superheroes who band together to save the world, that’s totally fine. Marvel didn’t do it first, either. With really familiar types of plots like that, you’re just going to want to make sure that you’re putting your own individual spin on it. I’ve addressed this issue in more depth in this past post, in case you’re worried about it! All of us take inspiration from the work of other creative people. That’s just how culture works.

 

“I’m white/straight/male. Is it okay if I write about a character who’s black/gay/female?”

Sure, but it’s a complex issue. I recommend this post about white writers and black characters, and this post about straight writers and gay characters. For some good food for thought regarding cultural appropriation, try this post.

As far as men writing female characters, the most common mistake I see is an over-emphasis on their physical appearance. I think a lot of men write good female characters, which isn’t surprising, since most men have women for family members, friends, coworkers, and sometimes, romantic partners.

 

 

“Is it okay to write about how horrible my family/friends/ex-boyfriend is?”

Writer Anne Lamott famously said:

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

It’s a great quote.

Do I follow her advice? Not really, but I’m a fiction writer, not a memoirist.

I’ve certainly used a few real-life painful experiences in my fiction (in this work in progress, for example.) But when I’ve done that, I’ve changed the material a lot. My characters are different from me, after all.

Personally, I would never write anything, even under a pen name, that I wouldn’t publicly stand behind. It’s a matter of integrity, but it’s also practical: writers’ real names get revealed all the time. I wouldn’t write anything that could destroy a relationship that still meant a lot to me…or that could get me dragged into court for libel.

I’d just say to consider the possible negative consequences before putting anything like that out into the world. Even if you don’t write about your experiences directly, you can still infuse your experiences and emotions into much more fictional scenes.

 

Is It Okay For Me To Write About This? #diversity #female characters #copyright #dark #too personal #can I use song lyrics in my story

 

Except for the copyright issue, this post doesn’t provide any definitive answers. However, I hope it helps a little as you figure it out for yourself! I’d love to hear your comments below. Happy writing, and have a great week!