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An attempt to have a meaningful discussion on dealing with sensitive topics

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by BWFoster78, Jul 20, 2015.

  1. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    EDIT: Oops. Meant to have the title be "... discussion on dealing with sensitive topics."

    DISCLAIMER: I would really, really like to have a serious discussion about how to deal with sensitive topics in writing. I think it is both important and useful to know how to deal with such. However, by its very nature, discussing how to write about sensitive topics seems to evolve into discussions about dealing with specific sensitive topics. The mods seem inclined to close threads where the discussions diverge from writing and get into the territory of specifics (a policy that I completely understand). If we could avoid any actual debate of sensitive topics and keep the discussion focused on writing about sensitive topics, I would really appreciate it! I tried to choose an example that didn’t seem likely to cause an emotional response.

    I’ve seen a couple/few threads lately where an aspiring author brings up a question like, “Hi, I’d like my character/world to deal with (sensitive topic). What’s your advice?”

    My interpretation of the answer from a vocal segment of the forum members: That topic hits my buttons. If you absolutely have to include it, make sure that it is always portrayed as completely evil. Definitely don’t let your protagonist think the (sensitive topic) might be something he could consider being a part of.

    First of all, let me truthfully say that informing the author that the subject is a hot button issue is valuable. As we try to make it in the publishing world, we very much need to understand what might trip up our stories out of the starting gate. I don’t think it’s a Bad Thing at all to say to that aspiring author, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger. Proceed with caution.”

    I feel, however, that this group might take that caution a little too far.

    For example, murder:

    I think that most of us would agree that murder is bad. Most of us would not advocate killing someone without justifiable reason. Most of us would think someone who did kill someone without a justifiable reason is a Bad Person.

    I think, probably, being paid isn’t a justifiable reason to kill someone.

    If I were to base my plotting decisions solely on the threads I’ve read recently on these boards, I would come away with the opinion that I should never write a book in which the protagonist kills people for money because:

    A. No one is likely to buy a book in which the protagonist does bad things.
    B. All the readers are going to think you, the author, is a Bad Person because of the way your protagonist acts.

    Here’s the problem: there are a ton of very popular books and movies that feature assassins as the protagonists, and I don’t think that Brent Weeks is particularly reviled for writing the Night Angel Trilogy.

    Personally, I feel murder is a Very Bad Thing. If I were to read an autobiography of a death row inmate where he admits murdering people, I think I’d have a hard time finding any sympathy for the “protagonist.”

    I think that being an assassin would pretty much make you a horrible person. Again, if I read an autobiography of one, I don’t think I’d relate. On the other hand, I like books and movies about assassins. They’re fun. They present very interesting problems and conflicts.

    To me, there is an incredibly huge difference between real life and fiction. If a character does really bad things, it makes the character pretty unlikeable. At the same time, though, those actions do not make the character irredeemable because, no matter how much suspension of disbelief I have, I know that the character a) does not exist and b) the people to whom he did really bad things do not exist. Therefore, no actual really bad things were done.

    That, I think, is why I can enjoy books about assassins when I think that assassins are pretty horrible people in real life.

    So I’m not sure that telling aspiring authors that they shouldn’t write books with protagonists that are assassins is good advice. There are, after all, many examples of popular works that feature such. Those works were neither destined to never sell because of the subject matter nor did they make their authors pariahs.

    My advice to the original question would be:

    Read contemporary popular works that deal with the sensitive topic you want to deal with. Examine how the sensitive topic is treated. Use that treatment as your guide.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 20, 2015
  2. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

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    A protagonist can certainly do bad things. You can have a villain protagonist like Macbeth, you can have an anti-hero, you can have a true hero make a decision that is morally questionable. The key thing, if they aren't a villain protagonist, is retaining some sort of audience sympathy. You can do that in any number of ways, depending on the story.

    For point B, I don't think the readers will think you're a bad person because of what the protagonist does. I think they'll decide that based on how the story handles the protagonist's actions. For example, in her backstory, my protagonist is a brash young noblewoman in command of a cavalry company, and she's riding down the fleeing forces of a man who tried to usurp her homeland's throne. He and a large number of his soldiers take shelter in a (poorly) walled town. Her cavalry company can't get in, and calling for reinforcements will take time she doesn't have. So she decides to burn down the town from the outside. She knows the townsfolk and the soldiers will flee, so she tells her troops to "Capture those you can, kill those you can't", because the Usurper has escaped by disguising himself as a peasant before. In the heat of battle, she never stops to think that she doesn't have enough troops to take that many prisoners. And so her men shot down everyone attempting to flee the town, and the town is totally destroyed.

    The next morning, she sees the devastation and death. Her men are hailing her as a hero for killing the Usurper and ending the war, but she feels only regret at her actions. After a few months of such praise from the nobility, she can't take it anymore, and abdicates her position in favor of her brother. Her regret drives her into a self-destructive spiral that she doesn't pull out of for years. Even in the present, ten years after the event and well on her path to redemption, she's still dealing with the psychological consequences of her actions.

    Now, that could come off very differently if I had her react in a different way, and I didn't describe the horror of the battlefield. If I had her look out over that burned out town, those hundreds of dead innocents, and she felt nothing, the whole story is different. If she never regrets it, if people are always congratulating her on her victory and no one calls her out on what happened, that changes how the reader will view it.

    Now I have the makings of either a villain, or a character I'm trying to force you to sympathize with. Having a villain, as an antagonist or protagonist, is fine. Having a character who does bad stuff, and the story treats it as a good thing, expects you to see them as a hero, is not. In this case, it would look like I'm saying massacring a bunch of innocent people is a good thing. That would raise some questions in most readers. I think that's what most people are getting at when they talk about unfortunate implications.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2015
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    The debate on our new guidelines was held at length, the end result being our new guideline for sensitive topics.

    Some topics are inherently more volatile than others. In a community of this size it's likely to have members who might have been victimized by some of the crimes up for debate. It's unlikely, when talking about the business of an assassin, to damage another member. However, if the discussion concerns child abuse, sexual assault, or similar it much more likely to actually affect one of our members. We must be cognizant of that potential.

    So, a thread like Slavery in Fantasy, on its own, is a topic that's okay for discussion. However, when it veers into the realm of sexual assault and a question like, "is this rapist sympathetic?", it simply will not be allowed. That's dealing with a serious and sensitive topic in a flippant and unsympathetic manner.

    That being said, if I was writing a book where a victim of some sensitive crime was a character in a story and I wanted to learn how to present the trauma or recovery in an accurate & responsible way, that may be allowed depending on context & presentation.

    It's a fine line, but one that's become necessary to observe. My advice, if you want to discuss a sensitive topic, make sure your questions and comments are such that they demonstrate a true desire to learn or understand, persuade or educate. Don't look for validation of a questionable character. Don't try to find reasons to excuse a horrific crime. You may do that all you like privately, and in your own writings. It is not acceptable in our community.

    Show respect and treat your fellow members with empathy & understanding.


    I hope that clarifies the issue.
     
  4. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I read the new guideline, and while my 2 cents Canadian may be devalued these days, thought they were very well done.

    It is hard to balance the hope for a "family friendly" site, with the potentially valuable discussion of more adult or sensitive topics. The team here do a pretty darned good job on that despite how hard it is.

    Keep up the good work.
     
  5. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Since fictional characters are fictional, I don't really get super upset about their morality or the general morality of the story.
    I generally think it's good to experience/experiment/whatever with other worldviews, moralities and philosophies and fiction is a safe way to do that. If fiction as a whole has a practical use, that's probably it.

    Honestly, I was always under the impression that people didn't like books if the protagonists isn't not-good enough. You always get people saying "flaws are the be-all end-all of a character" or "moral ambiguity is more interesting" or "idealism isn't realistic" or whatever.

    Personally, the only serious topics that noticeably bother me when they appear in fiction are domestic abuse and - to a lesser extent - mental illness. Nine times out of ten, those topics are poorly-handled whenever they appear in fiction.
    But whatever, I deal with it.

    There's my contribution to this thread, I guess.
     
  6. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Note: I don't deal with "sensitive topics" as defined in the context of this thread, but I'd still like to weigh in - because the topic interests me.

    I think a lot of it is about having respect for the topic you're dealing with. Are you introducing sensitive topics in your story because as a means to develop the story or the character, or are you doing it to shock and awe the reader? I believe readers will react differently to your story depending on how they feel about your motives for introducing sensitive topics.
    Now, keep in mind that your reader's feelings about your story are based on the story itself and how it's written. It doesn't matter at all how noble your intentions are, if they don't come through in the telling.

    That's why I think having respect for the topic is so important. It's not fun to be misunderstood, and to be misunderstood when dealing with something that can be both disturbing and offensive, is probably going to end up being rather unpleasant.

    So, if you're going to deal with a sensitive topic, make sure you familiarise yourself with it (in theory) and learn about it. The more sensitive a topic is, the more likely people are to have strong opinions about it. I guess that leaves you with two options: research the topic carefully, or risk unflattering feedback due to poorly researched portrayal of sensitive topics.
    Personally, that's a risk I'd rather not take, but I'm guessing it's something that varies from writer to writer (and from topic to topic).

    I'm not saying you should bow down to popular opinion and conform to the current standards of political correctness, but that you should consider what toes you may be stepping on and whether that's something you will want to deal with or not.

    Technically, you should probably apply that to all topics, regardless of how sensitive/banal they are.

    To sum things up:
    - Treat your topics with respect.
    - Consider reader reaction
     
    Nihilium 7th likes this.
  7. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    X Equestris,

    First, thank you for the on-point response. Well put.

    Here are my issues with the quoted portion, however:

    1. My preference (and that of a lot of readers) are stories in which characters start with one set of core values and, through the events of the story, are forced to examine their beliefs and end up making a change. In order to change, one must, of necessity, start at one place and end up in another place. The place where the character starts may not be a particularly good one.

    If we stifle the author's ability to create beliefs/actions to grow from, we lose some really good stories. IMO, the worse the starting point, the better the conflict and the better the opportunity for change.

    I also prefer stories that are deeply rooted in my protagonist's perspective. So if my protagonist is doing/believing something bad at the start of the book, that action/belief is going to be portrayed as good (did that make any sense whatsoever? Trying to say that most people tend not to view their actions as evil, even if the actions are evil). Therefore saying it's a bad thing for the story to ever have the protagonist do something bad and portray it as good, to me, seems very limiting and, perhaps, wrong-headed.

    2. "Having a character who does bad stuff, and the story treats it as a good thing, expects you to see them as a hero, is not." If you changed this to read "... as a hero, is something you need to be cautious of", I'd agree. As an absolute, though, not so much.

    Again, I like stories told by the protagonist, and people rarely see their own actions as bad. Thus, it sets up an interesting conflict with the reader when the character sees himself as doing good when the reader knows he's doing bad. Basically, not saying it is something you should aim for, but it absolutely can work if you have the skill.
     
    Nihilium 7th and X Equestris like this.
  8. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I agree with this sentiment, though I go at it from a different perspective. If I were using a sensitive topic, it would probably be for one of two reasons:

    1. To create realistic conflict.
    2. To ground the character with realistic and appropriate flaws.

    Again, I agree in principle.

    My problem with some of the posts on this board in particular is that they seem to be leading authors to a conclusion that seems outside the norm as far as how readers react to certain issues. Some are very vocal about saying, "If this is in a book, I will not read it."

    As I stated in the OP, I think this is good information. A writer needs to consider such opinions. The danger, however, is in thinking that this group at MS, and in particular a subset of posters here, represents readers as a whole. (And I'm not really saying they don't. Perhaps they are more representative of readers than I am.) I think a more accurate measure of reader reaction is to study how other contemporary books that are popular have handled the topic and see if your handling falls in line.
     
  9. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

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    Perhaps I wasn't clear enough. If the character does bad things and never regrets them over the course of the entire story, yet you're still expected to see them as a shining paragon, that's not good writing. There's a problem there.

    Having a character change for the better over the course of the story is good. Indeed, it's pretty common. But if that doesn't happen, that's when what I was saying comes in.

    Edit: And telling from, say, a villain's point of view is great, too. Viewing their own actions as good makes perfect sense. But usually there's a different viewpoint that casts their actions in a different light.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2015
  10. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    As I stated in Point 2 above, I disagree with this. I think it absolutely can be good writing. I think it's not an easy thing to pull off - I certainly don't think I have the skill to do so - but I think it absolutely can be done, and probably has been done, really well.

    I think it more often can be, and has been, done really poorly.

    There are very few things a good author can't accomplish given skill, knowledge, and intent. However, if the audience for the comments are aspiring authors, I fully endorse advising, "Might be best to just make it easy on yourself and stay away from the subject. Once you've got a novel or ten under your belt, give it another whirl."

    Then again, I learn from my mistakes more than from my successes, so giving it a whirl might not be the worst of things.
     
  11. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

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    Of course, someone visiting a website created by other people is a guest and has to abide by the rules set by the people in charge. I still have to admit that I’ve been slightly taken aback by the new policies and by the swift closure of the thread on slavery. This morning, I decided to post when I came back this afternoon only to find the thread locked for posts which did have controversial context but where no member stepped out of line with their comments in my opinion. I also wouldn’t be able to sympathize with the character discussed there but does that really mean we shouldn’t discuss it?

    Treating sensitive topics with caution is important but I’m also quite wary about the seemingly increasing tendency here and elsewhere to believe that offending someone is something that has to be avoided at any cost. It’s impossible without seriously restricting freedom of expression.
    Take the character X Equestris has described for example: To you, it’s a situation where the character becomes more sympathetic by regretting her actions. To me, it feels like an instance of the situation where the gentle woman has to be forced into self-destructive regret over making a harsh decision during war, resulting in her stepping back in favour of a man (who unlike her has the necessary character traits to deal with such things).

    The warning system in fanfiction is a quite useful tool in such situations because it tells people what to stay away from. Having something like this for books or movies could be quite helpful.(Though fanfic also lacks a sexism warning and I’ve often been angry at stories which force the same into the Harry Potter world where it doesn’t really belong according to the author herself...)

    My stories contain quite a few controversial issues, usually those where I have some degree of understanding as to why a person would do such a thing even though it’s wrong from our point of view. Others go so strongly against my own socialisation and beliefs that I can’t fathom them in any way which means I won’t focus on them or have any sympathetic character do them.
    If one of the view-point-characters or another major character not directly painted as the villain is involved in controversial acts I make sure to show the effects on the victims as well. That doesn’t always mean that the responsible character suffers deep regrets or even acknowledges their actions as wrong but it hopefully shows that I’m not endorsing what they’re doing. Usually, the parts focusing on the victims make up most of the story because I have a tendency to write about the fate of people suffering from the effects of war.
     
    Nihilium 7th and BWFoster78 like this.
  12. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I think this is something that applies to all communities. Members of a community will eventually start to accept the opinions of that community as the norm. That's why it's important to try and be part of more than one community - to get different perspectives on the world.

    I'd recommend expanding this to include the reactions of people in general to everything. Not only will this help you gauge reader reaction to your story better, it will also help you portray the characters of your story better.
     
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  13. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Amanita,

    I have to admit that, even after this explanation:

    I still didn't get how the Slavery in Fantasy thread violated the policy. If any of the posts treated "a serious and sensitive topic in a flippant and unsympathetic manner," I just didn't see it. I thought a few of us were having a very respectful discussion about a situation that was portrayed in a very mainstream fantasy book by a very mainstream fantasy author.

    It really seems like the best bet is, "Just don't discuss it."
     
  14. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Yes. Exactly this!

    True enough. Pick a reaction, though, and I think we could find somebody somewhere that has that reaction.
     
  15. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

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    While I'm sure such a story could be technically well written, I'm also 99.999999% positive that it would still fail, in that your audience would rebel against your attempts to force sympathy for someone that they don't like. As such, it would still be bad writing. If you try to portray Grand Moff Tarkin as a great hero even after he has blown up Alderaan, people aren't going to buy it. If you try to portray Ramsay Bolton as a good man yet don't have any change in his character, people aren't going to buy it. They will put your work aside, probably wonder what's going on in your head, and their word of mouth will spread their views of both you and your work.
     
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  16. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    It's a tough balance to find. I didn't see anything in the slavery thread that made me concerned, but other recent threads went right off the dial. One poster went on and on concocting more bizarre scenarios to justify rape that seemed to be some sort of very unhealthy mental exercise. I was quite shocked to see how long that one was allowed to go on.

    I don't expect the admin folks to get it perfect, but I do expect an honest effort on their behalf which I think we are seeing.

    Considering some of the really offensive and distasteful things that have been dealt with here recently I am not surprised they have an itchy trigger finger.

    It is also possible that someone reported a concern about it privately and they acted upon it.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2015
    X Equestris likes this.
  17. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    At the risk of getting this thread shut down ...

    I think that this book did okay. And doesn't it do exactly what we're talking about - try to force the reader to sympathize with a reprehensible protagonist?
     
  18. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    You obviously have not read Lolita if you think the goal of the story is sympathy for Humbert.
     
    Russ and Mythopoet like this.
  19. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    After the slavery thread was closed, I sent a PM asking if I violated any rules. The response stated clearly and plainly why the thread was closed. I'd like to ask permission to post it in this thread. I think it would clarify things.
     
  20. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    T.Allen,

    Again, from the reviewer:

    My own words are failing me. Maybe "sympathize" isn't the right word, but the quote above is what I'm trying to say. A good writer can absolutely achieve make a vile character sympathetic.

    There's great potential for conflict by having a protagonist whose goals are vile.
     
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