Writing About Sensitive And Controversial Topics

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Writers can make a massive array of stories with a near infinite amount of characters and plots. However some of these are more off limit than others, some few would dare to discuss. Many of these are moments where a person or a group of people are victim to such issues that talking about them could be triggering to those who would much rather forget.

Sometimes, they can be beautifully told and really make for some powerful tales. Other times, it’s done for brownie points and feeling edgy and cool. Most of them are white males and as a white man myself, I feel like we have a multitude of stories to tell aside from telling tales of other people.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s see what these topics are and how they’re often mishandled.

What is a sensitive topic?

Sensitive topics are events or tropes that are typically shunned by society that are usually graphic or violent in nature. I’m not talking about gory action flicks. I mean racism, rape, torture, controversial historical moments, like the Civil Rights movement. Anything that can cause an internet flame war if you handle it wrong. Most writers don’t touch these topics, and that’s fine. I don’t either.

But sometimes, people want to be trendy, to go all out. Most of them fail not because of effort, but a lack of understanding about the subject they’re talking about and how it’s the new “in” thing. It’s not. It’s sensitive for a reason and even someone such as myself could potentially mishandle any of these. So, let’s see what the usual touchy subjects are.

Racism

The most obvious one and unfortunately, the most prevalent today. Having a character dislike another solely because of race. Fantasy racism is one thing, especially for non-human races, but taking a known slur and using it for shock value is…yikes.

Usually it always involves black characters or usually anyone non-white to show how evil this white character is and what a meanie he is for saying bad things. Plus, saying words considered taboo or derogatory is always used for shock value because you rarely hear them on TV and media anyhow. It’s always the N-word or Terrorist or anything of that sort.

Making up a fantasy slur like “lughead” is one thing. It’s silly and often used to tease (not that racism is okay but it’s your world, I guess), but saying a word with historical connotations, especially words that have been used as the other party was beaten and killed for being who they are is another issue. Those words carry an enormous weight to them and to casually throw them in seems careless and insulting. Even historical fiction. Yes, the word was prevalent during that time period, but being reckless about it isn’t a good idea and makes the reader shake their head.

Often, if it does appear, it should be used sparringly and within the proper context. It’s hard to give one concrete example, but the issue with it is some just use it to get away with things none of them would have said in real life unless they felt like being clubbed.

Sexism/Rape

Under a similar umbrella to the above, sexism usually involves other genders, but primarily women. History rarely tells the success of women, but writers will also use it for shock value. How often do you see characters beating women or saying “girls can’t do ‘x’” as far as female characters are concerned. My two stories, City of Kaiju and the upcoming The Daughter of Dragons, have female leads that, to me, are treated fairly (Or I do my best to anyhow), but it’s just like the above. Saying or doing things to women they wouldn’t get away with in real life.

And yes, it can definitely be used for shock value. Rape especially. It’s one of the “off limits” on my end and not to mention it’s always mishandled by men for the wrong reasons. Rape is a scarring and traumatizing moment, and something like that needs to be a life changing impact, not a one and done deal.

Unless you know exactly how to handle such a thing, I’d rather not see it as a plot device used so casually, even in adult fiction.

Non-white nationalities

You see a lot of activism these days. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Immigrant rights, as well as the many horrific moments placed upon them. Naturally, you may be tempted, as someone not of that race or ethnicity, to tell such a story from the perspective of a black character made by a white man and try to justify being an ally.

Instead, it falls into the exact same trap. Doing it as excuses to make horrible statements without bothering to do research.

Now I’m gonna be up front for a moment. If you want to include non-white main leads in your sci-fi story, go for it. Hell, if you feel like just sticking to your usual white characters, that’s also fine. Stick with what you know and avoid reinventing the wheel (or basically claiming you invented it).

That said, telling such historic moments as someone who spent life on the sidelines shouldn’t delve into their matters to make a quick buck. Unless you were actively involved in some manner and you’d rather tell your side of the story, fine. But a white author telling a story about the Black Lives Matter movement and claiming they know more than any black author is insulting.

I mean, I published a short story on Amazon featuring a Japanese protagonist living a mostly normal life, but I’m aware that I’m not the best person to tell these stories. Even then, it should very well be taken with extreme caution and plenty of research.

Want to write stuff like that? Then talk to people who are involved in such a thing. Get their point of view. See what they think of it. Writing is a team effort and so is proper representation.

When is a subject off limits?

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s more nuanced than that. Anyone can write whatever they want as long as they take care of the subject at hand. As far as the topics above, I’d rather have authors of various genders and races familiar with that subject tackle stories like that.

What does that leave for the rest of us? A whole slew of tales for us to explore. I’d rather leave topics like racism to black authors than let someone unfamiliar handle the subject.

Which means hiring creators that are underrepresented so they can tell their tales. It’s not like we have nothing to write.

Create whatever you desire. So long as you understand the content you’re writing and the care it needs.

Final thoughts

A lot of authors want to have that shock value of adding a powerful moment into a series. It tends to fail more than it succeeds which is why we need to be more conscious about what subjects we write about. Sometimes, we have that juicy idea, an idea that feels edgy and raw.

Any author should create what they desire, but it comes with limitations. Everyone has their story to tell. Tell you own story rather than someone else’s. It’ll make our lives that much easier.

That’s all for today. If you liked this post and want to see more, I have a Ko-Fi page set up. Why spend three bucks on a Starbucks Coffee when you can help support hard-working authors like me? Every bit helps and keeps me going. So thank you, and remember, the inn is always open.

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