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How To Challenge Stigma In Your Writing

Stigma Subjects

Stigma is defined in the dictionary asa mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation’. Sadly, there are many subjects and things that have a stigma attached, even in today’s more enlightened times. 

Two such stigma subjects include suicide and rape, especially when it happens to young men. Did you know:

  • That 84 men under the age of forty five in the UK take their lives per week? (Stats HERE).
  • 75,000 men in the UK per year – yes, 75K! – were estimated to be sexual assault survivors, with 9K victims raped (or attempted raped) in 2013? (Stats HERE).

If you didn’t realise this, you would not be alone. Stigma means these subjects are not often talked about, because the men with suicidal thoughts or those who have been raped or assaulted (or both), are dealing with shame and fear of not being believed.

Coronation Street

This is why Aidan and David’s twin (but separate) journeys to the edge of their mental health have been depicted brilliantly in UK soap opera, Coronation Street.

For those who don’t know, Aidan’s journey has been one of a happy-go-lucky  ‘lad’ who has gone off the rails. He has made many bad (but nevertheless plausible) decisions, most notably with Eva, his ex-fiancee who jilted him any the altar after it was revealed he was having an affair with her friend, Maria. This lead to him losing his business and the respect of his family and many friends. Though he’s worked hard to get himself out of the mess he created, building bridges with his loved ones (and has had some good success doing so), his mental health has deteriorated rapidly.

In contrast, David was a teen delinquent and is still a deeply troubled young man, but he finally found happiness with wife Kylie … Only to see her stabbed and die in front of him. Even when he found love with Shona, in true soap-style it was revealed her own son Clayton was the one who’d murdered Kylie. But they got over this and committed to each other, only for David to be raped by his supposed friend Josh after a night out.

On Purpose

Telling David and Aidan’s storylines simultaneously was a considered choice by the Corrie Team, as its producer Kate Oates explains:

‘David Platt is having a breakdown. We can see that he’s having a breakdown.

“He’s very unstable because he’s keeping this bottled up and if you were a viewer, you’d think, ‘If anyone’s going to do something to themselves it will be David’. He’s so volatile, look at how angry he is at the world. And actually, it’s the guy over the road that nobody expects – Aidan.’

That’s the brilliance of Coronation Street … It’s authentic, plausible and only too relatable. It is important storytelling as it will reach many people who may not have heard this message by other means.

Diversity means VARIETY

Lots of writers think diversity automatically equals race, or gender, or LGBT. Of course stories may include these things (in front or behind the scenes, too), but in real terms, diversity simply means VARIETY.

True diversity means shining a light on those UNTOLD stories as well, such as challenging the stigma of male rape and suicide, as Coronation Street has done so well. Here’s my top 5 considerations when trying to challenge stigma in our writing after the jump. Ready? Let’s go …

1) Commit to authenticity

Creatives might need to ‘sacrifice facts for drama’, but this needn’t mean rewriting issues and events completely either. There’s ALWAYS  a happy medium to be had when it comes to writing, as long as you commit to portraying something in as authentic a way as possible.

This means never going for the sensational, gratuitous or even plain WRONG for the sake of keeping the viewer or reader’s interest. This also requires not getting preachy or having the subtlety of a brick. Instead, creatives must trust in their audience to recognise the ‘greater good’ here, without going overboard. It’s a fine balancing act, but authenticity is at the heart of it all.

2) Research, Research, Research

Drama might be conflict, plus but that doesn’t mean sticking two fingers up to those affected by issues that carry stigma. It goes without saying that you should always make sure you read about the issue you want to write about as much as possible. Going to talks, exhibitions, museums etc (as appropriate) should be on your hit list too.

In addition, think about approaching organisations who work with the issue you want to write about, because they are able to give advice and information. In the case of Coronation Street, drafts of Aidan’s suicide storyline were read by both The Samaritans and CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably).

Now, obviously big shows can afford this, but even individual writers can find experts online now. Creating relationships with people via social media means most of us can locate teachers, nurses, psychologists, counsellors and more as our online friends.

3) Challenge your own experience

When writers want to challenge stigma, it’s very often because they have experienced it themselves. I was the same approaching my YA book, Proof Positive, which is about teen pregnancy. Teen parents are so often painted as irresponsible, slutty, ill-educated and plain bad parents! Yet this has never been my experience of all the amazing teen parents I know, who are doing a GREAT job and have great kids.

However, it was important in Proof Positive I didn’t just write MY version of being a pregnant teenager, so I interviewed and talked to countless other teen parents and pregnant teens, too. It could only add to my POV for my character – what’s not to like?? It’s always a great idea to consult with people who have literally been through what you want to write about, whenever you can.

4) Be sensitive

… At least in your approach to research! As I mention in my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film, social media has made this easier than ever … But NEVER just fire questions off into cyber-space at strangers, especially if you’ve never talked to them before. Crowd-sourcing for opinions on difficult issues via your Facebook page, or via Q&A sites like Quora can really help, because then people can CHOOSE whether they want to share with you.

Also, a note on the tone of your project … Just because sensitive portrayals are desirable, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with them too. Sometimes the greatest taboo-busting writing can come from a genre like comedy, or horror too. Whatever works for your story and style, too.

5) Brace yourself

When you challenge a stigma in your writing, you need to brace yourself. Some people will be  disappointed, or angry about your narrative choices. This may because they feel you have ‘gone too far’ … Or even that you have ‘not gone far ENOUGH’!

Others will believe you have got things wrong, even if you haven’t. You may even come across something you hadn’t considered as a result of these thoughts … and feel you DID get something wrong, or left something out.You may change your mind entirely about an issue by the time you have finished and released the project, who knows?

Just remember – writing a particular project may finish, but writers are always a work in progress. As long as you commit to the things on this list and do your due diligence in your research, you have done everything you can.

Good Luck!

17761123_10154582559506139_691836916590645085_o Want more on this?

Then check out my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film, out now from Creative Essentials. Available in paperback and ebook, from Amazon and all good book stores. Click on the link or the pic for more details.

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