Environmental Hazards: Five Challenges of Writing Climate Fiction (Part 6)

This post is part six of a seven-part series discussing my experience writing climate fiction in my novel, Blue Karma.

Challenge #5: Step Away from the Soapbox

As both a writer and a bibliophile, I think the greatest power of fiction is its ability to provoke thought. Here the cli-fi genre has a clear mission. Less than half the American public acknowledges the human impact on the climate, according to a 2014 Pew Research center poll, and only 33% consider it a serious problem. Changing these minds is critical to addressing climate change before it’s too late. If the increasingly disastrous headlines discussed in the last post don’t sway them, perhaps a good story can.

That doesn’t mean cli-fi should become an author’s soapbox. On the contrary: stuffing your story with rhetoric will probably turn off even those readers who share your view. Readers aren’t stupid. They can discern between a story with a strong theme and a flimsy narrative used as a vehicle for propaganda. It’s sort of like the difference between orange juice and orange cough syrup: both have an identifiable flavor, but one is natural while the other is cloyingly artificial and leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Despite my own strong convictions on environmental issues, I tried hard to keep Blue Karma free of politics. On the first revision, I removed any scenes or dialogue that seemed ideologically heavy-handed. I found it useful to keep the plot tightly bound to my characters’ immediate lives. For them, the causes of climate change are irrelevant: it’s simply the ecological reality they have to endure. Letting them direct the narrative helped eliminate my own opinions from the story. My goal in the book was not to assign blame for climate change or condemn those deemed responsible: I only wanted to portray, as convincingly as possible, what our world might look like if water crises continue to worsen. If I did my job right, this vision will speak for itself and readers can infer their own messages.

*Addendum, 11 June 2015: A family member who identifies as a conservative and climate change skeptic just finished reading Blue Karma. Given how much his beliefs differ from mine, I expected Blue Karma wouldn’t be his type of book. He admitted he was “wary that this was going to be another Fern Gully” (which made me laugh, since that was one of my favorite movies as a kid). But he enjoyed the story on its own merits and thought I avoided the pitfalls of preaching discussed in this post. Hearing his feedback meant a great deal to me. In writing Blue Karma, I tried to create a story that readers could appreciate regardless of their personal ideology, and my family member’s comments indicate I succeeded. Here’s to putting plot before politics!

Avoiding overwrought ideology is probably the biggest obstacle of writing cli-fi, but it can be overcome in much the same way as the other challenges discussed in this series. What’s the unifying theme? We’ll talk about that in the conclusive installment of Environmental Hazards.

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