On Writing About Sensitive (Trigger) Topics

Trigger warning: This post mentions potential trigger topics.

I love writing happily-ever-afters (HEAs) for my characters, but in order for them to get there, they have to go through quite a lot. The following quote from one of my favorite reviews summarizes this nicely:

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My stories always include hard and stormy issues (This post explains why it helps to write darker topics for my characters). Some of these issues may be trigger topics: subjects that generate strongly negative emotional responses. Triggers could be related to a damaging experience in one’s past (e.g., war, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic abuse, eating disorders, suicide, hate crime, bullying, racism, sexism, and more). Triggers may also be deeply rooted in a phobia of varied or unknown origin (e.g., fear of dying, fear of blood or violence, fear of spiders, fear of being alone, and more).

Given the wide range of experiences in your readers, I posit that there’s no way to predict all of the elements of your stories that may serve as triggers. However, you might reasonably assume that what you’ve chosen as characters’ primary struggles or fears will resonate on a very personal level with some readers who have had similar or at least analogous struggles or fears. Ideally, isn’t this what every writer wants, to have our readers be deeply affected by our stories? Readers are more sensitive and also more vocal than they were fifty years ago, and this is a natural result of social media and increased social connections. But it’s also because of an increasing social presence and conscience. Voices in our society rise with the call to address lingering social problems such as rape culture, racial inequality, gender discrimination, and mental illness (just to name a few).

You may decide to write about some of these trigger topics because they are part of life. If you do these topics justice, your readers will respond accordingly. Wendy Jessen had a great post with tips on how to write these tough topics. First and foremost, you need to pick your characters’ issues with knowledge and sensitivity. If you’re going to write about a sensitive topic, do your research well. Also draw upon real people’s experiences — perhaps this is you, or if not, seek out the perspective of someone who has gone through the storm.

In addition, here are three tips about emotional preparation:

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  1. Deal with the emotions. Make sure you understand your own emotions as you write about these sensitive topics. Channel that understanding to your story so your characters deal with their emotions as they work toward a resolution. You need to also accept the fact that you will have some readers dealing with their own emotions as they react to these issues. If this manifests as anger, know that this is their right. I have seen authors become extremely defensive or (worse) respond directly to a review that is strongly negative about their book with a justification as to why people shouldn’t take offense to how they wrote it. Every reader will take away something from a story, and it is their right to love it or hate it. It is natural, of course, to have your own emotional response when someone reacts strongly negative to something that you’ve written. However, find a healthy way to cope with your own emotions — go for a walk or a run or journal or paint or meditate or hit a punching bag — and then move on and keep writing.
  2. Know your place. This probably goes without saying, but I need to say it. If you craft a character that lives with a mental illness, this in and of itself does not make you a professional counselor. If your character is a survivor of sexual assault, this does not automatically qualify you as a victim’s advocate. Both of these are professional positions with specific qualifications. I have had readers write to me about their connections to something traumatic in my character’s backstory. (In these cases, these have been strongly positive responses, but as I stated in #1, anything is possible.) As an author, thank your readers for sharing their own stories, but it is not your responsibility (in fact, it would be irresponsible of you) to counsel them further.
  3. Trust in yourself. When we craft stories, we risk putting a very personal part of ourselves out there. When we write about highly sensitive issues, this risk of putting ourselves out there increases even more.  But if you want to write these stories, you need to shelve your self-doubt and instead trust in yourself and your abilities to represent your characters’ stories to the best of your abilities. I debated a handful of times whether I should include one particular element into my YA character’s backstory before deciding that yes, this was part of who she was. Like everything that has happened in my own past/backstory, this has influenced my current actions, and so was it with her. As I look back now to some of the vocal responses of my readers (both positive and negative), I do not regret my decision. If you decide to write sensitive topics, above all, you need to trust yourself to guide your characters through that storm and then back out again.  

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at www.helenboswell.com.

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