Sensitive Topics

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This is a tough post to write because it edges near things that I prefer to discuss in private.  We all know the topics that can stir a massive fight.  Issues that draw out the emotions and typically block rational discussion once the trigger is pulled.  I won’t even list the areas here because I’m sure we all know them.  Instead, I’m going to ask a simple question:

How do you touch on these in your stories without causing the fight?

First, let’s admit that people are going to see what they want to see.  Someone that goes into a fictional story with an agenda will find a way to satisfy that agenda.  I write fantasy adventure with an ensemble cast, but I still get the rare complaint that falls into one of the forbidden topics.  I tend to ignore them because I don’t write my stories with these subjects in mind.  Ignore might not be the right word.  I don’t publicly react and I look at how I can adapt to remove the complaint from happening in the future.  This really is hard to explain when one focuses on not starting a fight or holding onto neutrality.

Another thought is if we should focus on these topics if they aren’t part of the story.  They can subtly turn up, but there are books I’ve read where it feels like such topics consumed the actual story.  Reminds me of trying to see the road through a thick fog.  Not to belittle the issues, but it’s always strange to read a story that doesn’t focus on them and somehow gets overshadowed.  Though, I do wonder if that was only my perception and the author never noticed/intended for it to happen.

So, what do other authors do when it comes to ‘taboo’ topics?  Are they impossible to avoid in today’s world?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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87 Responses to Sensitive Topics

  1. Jay Dee says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to avoid things like this. Someone will always be offended. I’m writing a rather touchy subject at the moment, and some people may not like how I portray a certain religion, when in fact, I am only portraying a single person in a certain religion. She is not a representative of the religion. However, I’m sure people will not like what I write. I welcome it, in fact. Why not? If it affects someone so strongly like that, it may draw attention to it. It’s free publicity. Of course, I won’t tolerate any kind of fighting or hate speech on my blog, nor will I respond to it. I’m thick-skinned about this kind of thing, and I may even be amused by it. I’m not sure. It hasn’t happened yet.

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    • Excellent point that you mentioned. People seem to see an individual character as the embodiment of the entire group even if that wasn’t the attention. Sometimes people will even ignore a nicer character of the same group that is in the story. Tells me there are people who hunt for reasons to be offended.

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  2. Sue Vincent says:

    Good Lord…( and that will offend some from the start 😉 ) I doubt there is a word we can write that will not offend or upset someone these days. I think you just have to go with your own gut on this and write from the honest heart of you.

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  3. Clive Mullis says:

    If you avoid everything that could cause offence then I would have thought the writing would end up so banal that it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Write what you want generally. The big problem is when someone sets out to offend intentionally; now that is a no-no as far as I’m concerned.

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    • Purposely going for offense is definitely a no-no for me too. I don’t understand the point of it other than a call for attention. I do think a story could be written while avoiding these topics, but that’s from a fantasy author perspective. Maybe that’s why I have trouble wrapping my head around it at times. It’s not something that comes up a lot.

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  4. Kylie Betzner says:

    Hmm . . . I decide which statement I want to make and own it. You can’t please everyone and I don’t want to beat around the bush cause someone might be hurt. Some people are easily offended but you can’t pussy foot around their feelings. I know my sense of humor might displease some people but they’re not my intended audience.

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    • Sense of humor is such a good point. That seems to be a big source of ‘fights’ because everyone has a different style. What one person finds funny, another will find highly offensive. So it might be more in how we the reader/viewer/whatever react than the person who says it. Probably depends on the intent too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kylie Betzner says:

        Exactly and you’ve got to consider your audience. I write for a young audience–not my grandparents. So I don’t cater to their sense of humor (or lack there of). I’m not going to delete a scene or joke my intended audience would enjoy because the minority of my readers would be offended. Yeah, I typically avoid hot button issues but if I want to hit them I will:)

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      • I’m still trying to figure out my audience because I don’t think of the age. I write fantasy that isn’t gritty, so people immediately put me into YA. I did that too at first, but the books get darker and more adult as they progress. So I just write what the story needs.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kylie Betzner says:

        I hear you. Mine are kind of light and comical in nature so I gear them to YA audiences and adults. I often say young adults and adults who are young at heart. lol.

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      • Ever think it’s strange that adults are the ones who create the YA category, but many seem to underestimate the age group? At least in terms of maturity and ability to handle certain topics.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kylie Betzner says:

        At my job we consider 24 year olds to be youth clients. lol

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      • Yeah. I know I was still being called a kid when I was in my 20’s.

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  5. merrildsmith says:

    I think you need to write the story you want to write. Some topics are horrific, but they need to be written so that people know these horrors exist–war, slavery, etc. Other topics are sensitive because they touch a particular chord in a person or group. I cannot condone racism or hate, but I suppose everyone has the right to write what want unless it’s a deliberate call to harm someone or something.

    I’m certain my blog post today will offend some people. It’s not my intention, but oh well.

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    • Intention is definitely something people should factor in. That doesn’t seem to happen these days. For example, people getting angry at an author for a villain doing evil, horrible things. It isn’t the intention to glamorize that since it’s the bad guy, but many people simply see the topic and leap into a fight that was never there in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I say write what is in your heart. You cannot please anyone but yourself. If they don’t like what you have written Oh well!

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  7. I think Kylie is right. At some point, if it needs to be in the story, you have to own it. I also agree that it is one character who feels or acts, not necessarily the author. I suppose your overarching theme could be one of the controversial subjects. I pushed big insurance to an absurd level as the basis of Arson.

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    • Writing fantasy, I don’t find myself in these situations very often. The odd thing is when I get a complaint about a character doing something horrible and it’s the villain doing it. That’s why I’m wondering a bit on how sensitive topics can be broached or if one should simply accept that you’re going to attract a fight or two.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Paul Davis says:

    People will always see what they want to see. If there is an agenda to settle, they may not even read the book, but go off the thinnest perceived slight available to them. If it’s a good story, it’s a good story. I like GRRM because it never feels like he has a message. Every time there is a possible message, he always contradicts it. Because that’s how it generally turns out.

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    • Interesting. I forgot about how people can do that. One can cherry pick or purposely decipher things to their agenda. Honestly, that shows a level of creativity that makes me wonder why these people don’t write a fiction book.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. sknicholls says:

    I had multiple sensitive topics in Red Clay and Roses. Although, as an author, I stayed neutral, not preachy toward one side or the other. In reviews, I could see that people saw what they wanted to see. There were even a couple of reviews where my neutrality was condemned. Please yourself first.

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    • Wow. That’s interesting that your own neutrality was condemned. I’m betting you’d be lambasted if you went in either direction too. Just can’t win, so pleasing yourself first is the best path in that situation.

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      • sknicholls says:

        One reader said the story was weakened because I did not take a stand. She was passionate about it in a very long review. In my mind, the whole point to the story was to present the facts and let the reader make up their own mind. To that ends, I succeeded. I’m pleased with it.

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      • Some readers have already made up their made, so they look for justification from the author. Honestly, I would prefer reading a book from a neutral corner because it would make me think.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. drshaywest says:

    Some people will see whatever they want to see, whether it’s a book, a movie, or society in general. As an author or a human bring, we can’t please everyone all of the time. No matter what we try to do, there is always a chance *someone* will be offended. If we start second-guessing plot lines and characters based on what any one person might take offence at, we may as well stop writing.

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    • I’ve fallen into that mistake once or twice. Trying to please the vocal people and losing the essence of my book. It actually led to me having to rewrite my first book because I listened too much to other people and not really to myself. Guess that’s kind of a goal for people that are taking a stand against an author.

      Liked by 1 person

      • drshaywest says:

        It’s definitely a tough one. I write lots of different types of people try to remain true to that and/or the time period I’m writing in (I do some time travel stuff). And 99% of people that read/review my stuff never mention anything about being offended. I just can’t see changing everything for the minority that would probably find something to complain about in the most boring, politically correct novel

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      • I’m guessing that most people either aren’t offended or think they’re way to calming down. As you said, it tends to be a vocal minority in these situations. That 1% can be very loud and make you forget that the other 99% aren’t making a fuss.

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  11. drshaywest says:

    Reblogged this on Dr. Shay West and commented:
    Sharing this blog post about sensitive topics in our writing. Have you ever been offended by what an author has written? Did you ever wonder if it was more to do with you than their intent to offend?

    Like

  12. cpbialois says:

    The sad thing is, it seems more and more people look for things to be offended by. I touch on a few topics in my books, but I tend to keep it semi-vague and in a way I hope will make people think instead of giving them a reason to lash out. In the end, I think it’s up to us to continue exploring those ideas. If it makes people uncomfortable, maybe it’s needed sometimes?

    Not sure if I made any sense or just rambled. lol

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  13. Dylan Hearn says:

    I think as a writer, you need to decide what you’re comfortable with and write that. Personally, I’m happy to write about sensitive subjects because they need to be tackled, but that doesn’t mean everyone should. By all means stay sensitive to criticism, because we all make mistakes, but if you end up tailoring your writing in an attempt to please everyone, you’ll likely end up writing something nobody will want to read.

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  14. L. Marie says:

    Great topic. I know what you mean. I was tempted to include some of the sensitive issues in my novel in the hope of gaining more attention. Then I thought, “I’m doing this, not because I care deeply about this issue, but because I have selfish agenda.” So I agree with those who said to write the story that’s in your heart. So many people have opinions about what they think “should” go in a story. I’d like to see THEM try to write THAT story.

    Like

    • Interesting internal thought. I wonder how many people take these stands because they want the attention. I’m sure most people believe in the issue they’re talking about, but I guess every group has those that get involved to be seen.

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      • L. Marie says:

        I would agree that many people believe in whatever hot button topic they discuss in their stories. And more power to them for taking that stand. I, however, reserve the right to avoid taking that same stand if it means being inauthentic.

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      • Same here. I’d rather be honest and true to what I think than going along with the crowd.

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  15. edireland says:

    There’s isn’t anything I can add to what has been said already. I’m finishing up a book now that will certainly have people at my throat. The problem is, the book’s direction has already been laid out long before I even thought of the writing. Books are funny like that. They don’t appreciate the overly-sensitive world we inhabit. They don’t get that one thing will be a “brilliant stroke” to one crowd and a “pitched force to disrespect life” to another.
    Books have a story to tell and that story must be released. I tend to be thrilled if people read them. If they are well received, all the better. As I have said before, I’m more of a stenographer than a writer. If my work tends to offend anybody, then they must take it up with my muse…although, she is a nasty little strumpet, especially when she’s gotten into the nip.

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    • If people are at your throat, then cover it in the spiciest hot sauce you can find. Even if they bite in, they’ll suffer instantly. 😉

      Love how you say that books don’t appreciate or even care about our overly sensitive world. We should be more like books.

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  16. I don’t hit hot buttons just for the sake of hitting them. I worry a little about religion and extremism when I write about them but try to keep them in context. Good subject.

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  17. I don’t think you can or necessarily always should avoid these topics. There will be people who are easily offended or are constantly looking for things to be offended over so that they can justify their need to complain. All I can say is do what YOU think is right and forget those that take everything personally, this is their problem my friend, not yours. Either way it is a tough thing to deal with, I wish you the best of luck.

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  18. I was surprised to find some strong opinions in reviews of children’s books, but even parents hold strong views. Sometimes, of things I wouldn’t have thought twice about. Publishing a book is kind of like playing Minesweeper.

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  19. A “taboo subject,” the thing nobody wants to talk about… Is a question begging to be asked. An answer waiting to be sought after. Writers should not only mention the taboo subject, they should base their books on it. Plunge into it, bring up what truth there is to grow in the light.

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    • True. Though what if the author merely wants to entertain? I haven’t noticed that a lot of people talk as if every book has to touch on a sensitive subject. It has led to some people searching for taboo subjects in books that had no intention of broaching such things. So, what do you think about books that may accidentally bring a taboo into the light? How should an author handle such a thing?

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      • If you look back at storytelling through the ages, there has seldom been a time when a story was just a story. Aesop told stories with morals. The legend of Cadmus, which I recently covered over at Wyrmflight, drew a connection between Greek city-states all around the Aegean. Mother Goose taught simple social manners so effectively that “she” still appears in Kindergartens today. The 19th and 20th Centuries may have been the first when stories were told purely as entertainment.

        If, as you say, an author sets out to tell a simple story and finds more complex material within it, I’d urge them to embrace that. Explore what they’re discovering through the magic of story. See where the path leads. They could end up with a really amazing book.

        Or, bail out. Decide clearly that this is not the story you wish to write, and change something in the story so that the taboo subject will not appear. Just realize that your readers will probably see through this and may ask why you danced around such an obvious factor.

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      • Interesting choices. It is interesting how readers will focus on a taboo part of a story sometimes and ignore other aspects. The author might not see it as a central theme, so being questioned about it is confusing at first. This might be where beta readers come in handy again.

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  20. Ellespeth says:

    If someone wants to be offended, they’ll be offended and anyway, what’s taboo to you may not be taboo to me (tiny rhyme there). Is anything taboo anymore?
    Ellespeth

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  21. I think it’s better (for your writing and for your sanity) to make waves than to be afraid to rock the boat. 🙂

    Like

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