Writing about Sensitive Topics

How do you handle writing about sensitive issues in your fiction? I suppose that would depend on the genre. I imagine that Jodi Picoult would handle rape in a very different way than Stephen King would. I personally could not describe rape or abortion or anything like that in any kind of graphic detail — I would have to make it as subtle as possible and not even mention the word “rape” or “abortion” at all. A lot of the time, it is the word itself that brings all the feelings and biases associated with it.

Also, how do you write about a sensitive topic with objectivity? I think if a heavy issue like global warming or stem cell research appeared in my writing, I’d find it hard to keep my own opinion out of it. That might be easily worked around by writing from the character’s side of the issue, but even that might cause readers to think that there is a bias in the book that you did not intend to put there.

Or you could keep those topics out of your fiction altogether. I personally wouldn’t want to read something where the main character kept expounding on his position on stem cell research. But something like rape or abusive relationships are fairly common plot devices in a lot of genres, especially young adult literature. Most of the authors whose books I’ve read have handled it well, but there are some others who don’t make it realistic or who don’t discuss it with gravity.

I think it would all depend upon the characters, their points of view, and how they might see the world. In fiction, you are creating a world for the reader and the reader is not supposed to “see” the author’s hand in it.

Thoughts? 🙂

10 thoughts on “Writing about Sensitive Topics

  1. You know, I think I’m one of those that kind of don’t write about it. Didn’t realize that till reading this. I try to write more on the humorous side of things in my fiction. Hmm, I need to think about this more. Very thought provoking post!

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  2. I think you’re right..each individual character would handle sensitive issues in their own unique way; but always keeping in mind their personality and past history!

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  3. I can’t imagine writing a rape scene. I might have one character who had been raped (I have two characters who were abused when they were young, though they seldom talk about it), but it’s way different to have it happen in the “now” as opposed to referring to it in the past.

    There are two abortions in my stories, but again they’re just referred to, certainly not described (though I did do some research).

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  4. I’m actually writing a story in which most of the darker aspects of human life is going to make an appearance! The first of those is domestic abuse. I have had personal experience with this and writing about it is not easy. But I’m not really adding any views on the matter. Just describing what happens. I think the majority of the people who may read it knows that domestic abuse is wrong and therefore I do not have to really give an opinion through my characters.
    I agree with you on that it depends on the character. If the character is well developed and the reader has a good idea of who the character is, you could address the issue through the character without the reader thinking it’s related to you.

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    1. I think in the case of domestic abuse, it’s not a question of whether it’s wrong or not. It’s more a question of discussing it with sensitivity, which you would surely do since you had experienced it. But whether the character would discuss it that way is an entirely different matter.

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  5. Good question. I might take it just a bit further and suggest that for many writers it is hard to NOT be politically correct, even when they are writing about a period in time when the term hadn’t been invented. In the early 1800s people didn’t worry much about burning coal or wood in the winter. It was just how you kept warm. Disease was everywhere, and the idea of a doctor washing between operations was only just being considered. Just to name a few.

    I also like to remind myself that my characters don’t have to share my moral beliefs, my education, or philosophies.

    It’s actually kind of freeing when you allow your story to be true on as many levels as you can imagine.

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    1. I never really thought about the political correctness aspect of it, but I guess that would also depend on the character and whether he or she wanted to be politically correct.

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    2. Richard, this reminds me of something I read about Victor Hugo (on Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt). When he was writing Les Miserables, his son asked if the bishop who turned Jean Valjean a life around couldn’t be a doctor or a lawyer, some sort of professional man. Hugo reminded his son of when the story took place (decades earlier) and said, “You can’t put the future into the past.” I think this is very true.

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