Feminist Noir, Exploring Social Issues in Fiction

I’ve been writing nonfiction books for twenty years, often on difficult subjects such as sexual violence, assisted reproductive technologies, oppression, capital punishment, genetic engineering, and war.

When I started writing mysteries, I made a conscious choice to let my nonfiction research on women’s issues inform my fiction.

The fact that I’d already done the research was, of course, an advantage for writing the novels. I had extensive knowledge of some of the issues from my previous research efforts. But, I quickly discovered that writing fiction enriched my nonfiction writing, too. Writing novels gave me new ways of approaching tough issues I’d been thinking about throughout my career as a philosophy professor.

I wrote my first novel after researching a nonfiction book on the connection between images of strong girls giving as good as they got in films such as The Hunger Games and Divergent at the same time as weekly reports of unconscious girls being sexually assaulted on campus.

I was so shaken by this research project that my turn to fiction was a kind of self-defense against the harsh reality of sexual violence. In my invented world, the girls would fight back, and together defeat the rapists. I knew that a novel set on a college campus featuring young women had to deal with the issue of campus rape. But, in my imagined world, young women would have each other’s backs to prevent sexual violence. And anyone who messed with these tough, but vulnerable young women, would get their ass kicked.

Call it a sort of feminist revenge fantasy to counter-balance all of the horrible stuff I’ve uncovered in my nonfiction research.

Writing fiction became a personal compensation for me, a way to imagine a better world, and a different future for young women through feminist noir.

I decided to make my novels center around contemporary women’s issues, many of which I’d researched in my nonfiction work. It was important to me to try to raise awareness of issues that often remain in the shadows because they are too difficult to confront head-on. I thought if I could tell a compelling story with rich characters in settings readers could relate to, move the plot along with page-turning action, and sprinkle in a large dose of humor, then I could shine a light on hard issues in a way that wasn’t threatening or preachy.

 It’s one thing to describe different viewpoints or opinions in nonfiction books, it’s quite another to inhabit them and make them come alive in a novel.

In order to make characters with differing perspectives on the same issue, an author needs to find a way to understand, if not sympathize with, viewpoints other than their own. This is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing fiction, getting into other people’s heads. You have to understand and respect even your bad guys.

Writing fiction gives us a chance to explore the world through other people’s eyes, to imagine lives other than our own, and characters that have radically different ways of seeing the world. Fiction is an adventure in perspective, a way of traveling the world in the imagination.

Where does your fiction take you? Are there any issues close to your heart you’re called on to write about?

Author: Kelly Oliver

Kelly Oliver is the award-winning (and best-selling in Oklahoma!) author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF, COYOTE, FOX, JACKAL, and VIPER. Her debut novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, and was a finalist for the Foreward Magazine award for best mystery. Her second novel, COYOTE won a Silver Falchion Award for Best Mystery. And, the third, FOX was a finalist for both the Claymore Award and Silver Falchion Award. JACKAL was a finalist for a Silver Falchion and a Mystery and Mayhem Award. The first novel in her new middle grade mystery series, Kassy O'Roarke, Cub Reporter, is out soon. And she has an Agatha Christie inspired historical mystery, MISS LEMON'S MYSTERIOUS ASSIGNMENT AT STYLES out in March, 2020. When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of fifteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as the refugee crisis, campus rape, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her latest nonfiction book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from the Hunger Games to Campus Rape won a Choice Magazine Award for Outstanding title. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs. Learn more about Kelly and her books.

13 thoughts on “Feminist Noir, Exploring Social Issues in Fiction”

  1. Kelly, that’s so true, what you said about getting into the character’s head and respecting them – even the bad guys. “Everyone is the hero of her own story,” as they say. In each of my books, I’ve tried to think like my villains and understand where they are coming from – even if that place isn’t a great one. Nobody likes cookie cutter characters, right?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “This is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing fiction, getting into other people’s heads. You have to understand and respect even your bad guys.” Absolutely agree. It’s so much fun to be the bad guy for awhile!

    As for my issues, a couple years ago I kept getting dope-slapped by the universe with regard to foster kids. I had no experience with the system at all, ever, but articles and encounters kept stabbing at me over the course of just a few weeks. So I started an annual fundraiser/party to create emergency supplies for kids who suddenly find themselves yanked from their homes. And it’s slowly dawning on me that I’m going to have to start writing about a foster kid.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I love doing dumpster dives into my character’s heads. Even the non-fiction I’m currently writing allows for the occaisional introspection.

    As for issues, my books have dealt with choosing the wrong men, undocumented people, organ donation, depression, and human sex trafficking. The manuscript I’ll be dusting off in a month or two deals with hate groups. Having a passion about the subject I’m trying to bring to light by telling a good story helps drive me to get it written.

    Kelly, I definitely want to check out your fiction!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. As a reviewer, I read books on all sorts of subjects with all kinds of victims, criminals, and crimes. I like the variety, but I do favor novels with strong female characters on either side of the action. After all, we are strong in all arenas of our lives.

    I specifically do not like stories with “stereotypical” women-as-victims characters. For example, I stopped reading a book by by an author you all would recognise because I could not stomach the main character; a high-power professional woman in high heels, tight dress, who walked down the street and was pulled into an alley and assaulted — all in the first 10 pages. I just could not do it!!! No matter what else happened or how “good” the action that followed, I could not get past the shallow, lowest-common-denominator opening.

    Fortunately, now I usually get to pick and choose what I read and review. There are so many aspects of real life that make wonderful, compelling, and thought-provoking books, and I am glad that all of you are focused on telling those stories.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. What a great piece, Kelly, and I absolutely love what you said about fiction being an adventure in perspective.

    I’ve tackled a few issues in my books, including sexual harassment, human trafficking, and child abuse. Some of these will be revisited in future books. Seems these themes aren’t done with me yet.

    Liked by 2 people

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