Sensitive Topics and You
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Discussion of disturbing topics ahead; proceed with caution.


Hi, I'm UraniumEmpireUraniumEmpire, mediocre author and chronic no-fun haver. You may know me as the author of articles featuring such themes as rape, nazis, rapist nazis, bestiality, conversion therapy, survival sex work, and suicide. You may also notice that many authors will discourage the average newbie from exploring such themes.

I'm not here to prove that you can write about such things (I've already done that), nor am I here to encourage you to ignore the people who raise these concerns. Frankly, if you have any doubts about your ability to respectfully portray these topics, don't write about them until you've practiced and researched the doubts away. But it is precisely because of both sentiments that I feel the need to advise potential authors on where such things can go wrong, and how to keep causality from dropping that fat load of shit onto your head.

1: What this essay is not.

This essay will not:

  • Cover the entirety of situations involving sensitive subject matter.
  • Argue for the inclusion of sensitive subject matter into works that don't absolutely need it.
  • Argue for the exclusion of sensitive subject matter from all fiction.
  • Attempt to improve your prose.
  • Offer tips on how to "spice" up your stories.

This essay will:

  • Offer advice on how not to be an idiot about sensitive subject matter.

2: The Golden Rule

Here is the #1 thing you should take away from this essay:

When you include sensitive topics in your work, your work becomes either a work about or dragged down by such topics.

Multiple studies have concluded that while fiction doesn't exactly induce behaviors in others, the experience of reading about such topics can affect readers as if it had actually happened to some extent. Don't fuck with your readers unless they're here to be fucked up.

3: What is a sensitive topic?

To understand how to write sensitive topics, you must first understand what a sensitive topic is. Before we begin, I'd like to note that this essay is written from the point of view of a white Jewish-American from a petty bourgeoisie background; what constitutes "sensitive" may be differ between cultures.

Simply put, a sensitive topic can be thought of as any subject associated with the intentional or unintentional infliction of emotional trauma. In a medical context, they can be thought of as "triggers"; hence, many literary communities may include a list of "trigger warnings" on works with such topics, so individuals who may be sensitive to such things can either mentally prepare themselves or skip it altogether. Even outside the context of existing trauma, such topics are so ingrained in the cultural taboo that they can evoke disgust from those lucky enough not to have been exposed to such horrors.

Sensitive topics are "sensitive" precisely because they are common triggers, both in terms of trauma and disgust. Moreover: they are incredibly easy to fuck up. Writing something incorrectly can stir unpleasant feelings in your reader in entirely the wrong way, souring your piece for them.

In lieu of getting too into something that could hurt a human, let's start with an analogy:

  • You are a sea turtle. You do… some kind of sea turtle art.
  • For some reason, sea turtles have a sufficiently similar memeplex to humans.
  • You live in a society with other sea turtles. They will see your art.
  • You do not have children; however, your sister just had a litter, half of which was fucking eaten by pelicans.
  • You want to write a story about a pelican. Your sister will see your story.

You could go on with the story; I certainly think that with a lot of skill you'd be able to write a story that won't upset your sister. However, and this is vitally fucking important, such a story must focus on vindicating her frustrations, or else portraying pelicans in such a way that does not call to mind the tender little babies who were cruelly devoured by pelicans. Anything else will negatively affect her view of your work, and potentially even you if you fuck it up badly enough.

And this isn't just your sister: if my analogy has any merit whatsoever, pelicans in sea turtle culture represent something akin to child murderers. You don't want to glorify them, or make it seem like a spectacle, so you need to be extremely careful.

4: Know all your enemies, and know who your enemies are.

1
The culture of the English wiki primarily hews American (ironically enough): violence is an expectation and incarceration is an all-too-familiar reality abstracted by the Powers That Be. Sex, though inappropriate for children, is an off-page reality of (most of) our adult characters' lives, and influences their decision-making to an extent. Swearing can be separated into minor swears2, major swears3, and slurs4.

If this essay is translated, I suggest replacing this sentence with a summary of your own wiki's culture.5

In my 10 years with the site, the English wiki has engaged in extensive discourse around 3 sensitive topics:

  • Child endangerment: the deliberate or negligent infliction or allowance of harm to a child. Such things include parental abandonment, ritual abuse, and even straight-up child sacrifice.
  • Genocide: the deliberate extermination of a specific personhood on the basis of culture or genetics. In addition to straight-up killings, stories about forced assimilation and the murder of language can also fall under this category.
  • Sexual misconduct: harmful, abusive, non-consensual, or predatory behavior in the context of sex and relationships. Things like incest, sexual assault, and necrophilia are covered under this.

Readers will judge your piece much more harshly should you attempt to portray such topics, not just because they are sensitive but because the wiki has a storied history of such topics being handled terribly. Indeed, the difference between an upvote and a downvote often hinges entirely on how well you handled said topic.

Each of these topics can often be broken down into subtopics. Additionally, they can very often intersect with one another, compounding your own workload.

None of this is exhaustive, of course, but it's best to think of these in terms of degrees: those three are probably gonna be your biggest challenge, while other topics such as suicide and torture, while still traumatic, will be easier to tackle.

5: how rite gud

A good rule of thumb is to look at your piece through the lens of cultural criticism: what is your piece trying to say about, say, the here and now, or the here and then, or the there and will be? Moreover, do so even when your intent was "cool murder monster"; think about it as if you've never seen the piece before now, and it came up in a contemporary textbook on the topic.

In general, you'll want to avoid the following:

  • Wattsonian Approval: Diegetic6 excuses for such topics that, beyond explaining why said topic happened, tacitly provide justifications for said topic as situationally preferable. As an example: predator-prey dynamics as racial metaphors often make the mistake of justifying their in-universe existence as a reaction to the "inherent savagery" of the predator. Even if your thesis is that people should just "get along", you've already coded one race as innately violent and in-need of restraint.
  • Doyelist Approval: When the topic is presented solely for the viewer's entertainment. Such an approach functions as a tacit approval of the subject matter, as long as it's sufficiently ~enticing~ and only hurts the Other (i.e. fictional people). Such a topic will not be taken well by people who've been hurt by such things, and can very often be employed by bad actors as a means of grooming or traumatizing potential victims.
  • Mediocrity: While you always want to avoid wasting the reader's time, introducing sensitive topics can easily shorten the time the reader affords you. Above all else, write at your best.

Your reader should be able to read your piece and come to the conclusion that the thing that is bad is actually a bad thing. At the same time, you shouldn't play it too strong, or you'll risk retraumatizing your readers. Above all else, however, you shouldn't bullshit: be clear in your work's thesis. Don't cower and whisper, don't jump and scream, just stand and speak clearly.

6: The Drop-Off

With regards to an individual topic, there's no "one size fits all". Each of them necessitates a different approach, and that requires you to understand the topic.

In most cases, researching sensitive topics can be broken into four parts:

  1. What exactly is it, and how is it bad?
  2. How and why do such things come to pass?
  3. What is it like to be on the receiving end?
  4. How can I portray it in a way that doesn't retraumatize my audience?

The first stage is basically there to make sure you don't make an ass out of yourself. It's research on what such a thing is and how it's conducted: anything from reading articles on the subject or histories of famous incidents. You should do that for absolutely everything you write, but it's especially important when you're writing about such topics.

You want your reader to care. To give a shit about what you're talking about. To do that, you absolutely need to ground your works in, if not what we traditionally mean by "reality", then at least an authenticity. It's necessary even as a writer, because you should always be in control of your own work7.

The second stage is really just an extension of the first stage (and therefore takes a similar process), but it also serves a higher purpose. By understanding how and why something happens, you can better ground your thesis, whether "isn't monster scary?" or "smash the state", into something more tangible. If you're going for a critique of something, isn't it more meaningful to attack the material conditions that enable such a thing, rather that waiting for the thing as if you can stop it every time?

The third stage involves reading up on testimonies, first-hand accounts, and articles on the aftermath of such things. None of these things happen in a vacuum: someone has to pay a physical and mental price, often even when they weren't directly involved. This also keys you into the expression of such trauma, which feeds into the final stage.

The fourth and final stage doesn't involve too much more researching, but it does require you to synthesize all that you learned. This is basically an exercise in a much larger skill: learning how to convey emotions to your audience.

Obviously, this isn't exhaustive, but it's a good framework to keep in mind.

7: The Takeaway

Above all else, sensitive topics are exactly that: sensitive.

They aren't something you can bury under good prose: look at 166 and 231, highly-rated pieces who still draw intense criticism from authors for their alleged botching of such topics. Think of how dire a shadow such a botch will cast on your piece, that even the "best" of your writing can be brought down by carelessness. Ponder just how many pieces haven't survived such a shadow, how many are buried because they couldn't get past the weight.

And consider if you still want to take such topics on.