"Do I Have to Include Covid in My Plot?"

The problem with turbulent times is whether we’re supposed to write about turbulent times.

Dear Milo,

I’m writing a novel set in today’s time, but I don’t know if I need to include Covid mentions in it. I don’t want to because I’m tired of the topic, but will that make it unrealistic?


Sick and Tired

Syracuse, NY

Dear Sick and Tired,

I’ve heard many writers asking this question. It’s an understandable struggle. Covid isn’t as devastating for most folks in the United States as it was in its earlier years, but it’s also still around and impacting all sorts of lives in all sorts of ways. People are dying significantly less, but people are still dying. People likewise are now dealing with various aftermath, including the physical and mental effects of Long Covid, financial struggles, social anxiety, grieving either time or loved ones lost, impaired learning trajectories, and a mess of other things.

As such, writing a novel set in our current times would technically include such as the above if we wanted to be wholly accurate. (And, to a certain extent, respectful.) But at the same time, plenty of folks are understandably tired of the topic and want an escape from reality. Historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy can fill this need without much adjustment, but writers of contemporary settings find themselves stuck in the middle, expected to write plots that are believable without necessarily being realistic.

But to my memory, it’s not unlike the situation writers faced after the 2016 election. Suddenly, the United States was upended in a way nobody could ignore, and to not acknowledge it in a plot felt like a blatant disregard to the point of distraction for some readers.

A romcom is a romcom, certainly, but if it’s specifically about a queer, multiracial couple set in 2017…? Even if nothing bad happens to them during the plot, such a person’s interiority in the real world would likely still be notable. But also, it’s a romcom. Nothing particularly traumatizing is supposed to happen—and if it did, it would no longer be a romcom. The writer finds themselves at an impasse.

Suddenly, quite a few books published between 2016 and 2020 were specifically set in 2015. It was a loud statement in four digits, dragging our brains into the turmoil of our current times by actively sidestepping it. 

I feel novels written and published since Covid’s debut have begun to use this same tactic. We’re suddenly getting more books that specifically take place in 2019. You know, the final year before most writers’ plots would be irrevocably wrecked by reality.

But let’s get to your specific question, my friend: Should you include Covid in your plot? As you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t a cut-and-dry answer, and it depends on your genre, your plot, and your intentions.