Touching on Sensitive Subjects: How Do You Do It?

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Way back in Legends of WindemereI touched on a few sensitive topics such as torture and rape.  I didn’t go too deep on the second one, but it was there thanks to Stephen Kernaghan being a sick, evil bastard.  Not really sure I should say that I touched on it too because I used them as sources of story and character development.  Luke had to handle the trauma of being tortured both physically and psychically.  Nyx faced the fact that Stephen wanted to do horrible things to here, which is something that made me sick whenever I wrote it.  Seriously, this is why he’s the one character I’ve written so far who I can never find a redeeming quality of.

I felt uncomfortable whenever I touched on one of these topics, which I kind of considered a positive.  The fact that I was unnerved and twitchy meant that I wasn’t okay with the horrible actions.  I hoped it came through that these were evil deeds and that there was some hope of recovering from them.  All I could really do is hope here because I couldn’t tell how well I hit the note.  For a while, I considered avoiding such topics altogether and keeping things ‘safe’.  Yet, I kept going back because part of me wanted to at least graze the issues.  Honestly, I’m realizing that I’m still uncomfortable and unnerved about talking about them.  It’s like I don’t know what to say unless I’m having my characters interact with it.

That brings me to War of Nytefall: Lost, which does this to me again.  A difference here is that the sensitive topic is one that I’ve thought and talked about in the past.  Oddly enough, I’d been planning it for years, so I’ve been thinking about it for that long.  It’s a major plot point, so I won’t go into details.  All I’ll say is that I had to really think about it because men really can’t get the full gravity.  So, I went looking for sites that had people talking about the emotions caused by the sensitive topic.  There were times where I sat there and tried to think of what I would feel like if I went through.  A final step for me was writing test scenes where each of my characters who could suffer this fate ended up going through it and saying how they felt.  The various personalities led to some interesting ones, but it had me crying at the end.  I deleted it too.

Geez, this post is rougher than I thought.  Part of it is because I do something with this topic that could be controversial.  While it happens, it kind of gets reversed.  So, I had to consider what a person would feel in that situation.  This brought up a strange response where the character in question gets upset that she’s been given a second chance when other people don’t get that.  It felt almost like survivor’s guilt to me, but that’s only the closest thing I could think of.  Again, this aspect of what I’m doing makes me really nervous about it.  The anxiety is to the point where I’m worried that this post could have been a mistake.

So, I’m just going to end on a question and consider if I should reveal what the topic is in the book: How do you tackle sensitive and controversial topics in your fiction?  Do you avoid them?

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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16 Responses to Touching on Sensitive Subjects: How Do You Do It?

  1. I struggle here too. It’s one thing for a female author to write about some things, completely different for a male author. Some of these have also been done to death. Part of it is that we aren’t looking for shock value out of such scenes. It’s an actual character turning point. If you come up with a good recipe, I’d love to hear it. I have one in the pirate tale that involves what a desperate person might do just to survive. I think I handled it well, but betas can set me straight when I get to that point.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Sue Vincent says:

    I don’t think fiction should avoid rough topics…as long as they are part of the character’s journey and not used just for ‘effect’ as in some moneyspinners. Fiction is a place where such subjects can be ‘safely’ explored and levels of understanding and awareness increased…. though as every victim responds differently to life changing events, I doubt writers can get it right for everyone.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    You’ve already been given some good advice by commenters. There are some issues I don’t wind up tackling as someone who writes mainly for kids 9-12, but as a manuscript reviewer for editors who acquire manuscripts for all ages, the only advice I have is to give enough space to tackle the issue. The editors I review for complain when they see too many issues crammed into a novel that the author has not adequately addressed. Case in point, a short story manuscript that dealt with five different extremely sensitive issues within the space of ten pages. There was hardly any text about the emotional fallout occurring with even one of the issues addressed.

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    • Writing for kids does limit the subjects that you can touch on. Interesting that authors try to cram too many issues into one place. I wonder why that is? Maybe they only consider introducing the issue for character building and forget that such things need resolution.

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      • L. Marie says:

        Probably because they think these issues will sell. Or they are trying to discuss things that happened to them in the past and hope to achieve some sort of catharsis. But loading a short story with a bunch of issues can be considered overkill.

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      • Good points. I’d think the overkill one is more money based. I can see those wanting catharsis to focus and give it closure.

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  4. Your points are well taken. I believe the characters will pretty much guide the motivation for one of those sensitive sessions. I loved that you wrote out different character reactions to a sensitive scene. That gave you some valuable input.

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  5. Since I write for children, most of these kinds of topics don’t come up. Although, there are a whole set of other topics that have to be handled with care in my situation, since some things that are perfectly acceptable and normal to write about for adults aren’t always for children. Plus, impressionable young minds and all that.

    In general though, I think it’s OK if they’re used for character growth, and done well. For the record, I think you did a good job with tackling these kinds of things with Stephen.

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