Commentary

Why Some Dark Topics Are More Sensitive Than Others

A classical painting of Saint Peter weeping in front of the Virgin Mary.
Here at Mythcreants, we’re pretty adamant that most stories shouldn’t include potentially harmful subjects like sexual violence, racism against real groups, queerphobia, and the like. Whenever we write a post saying so, we’re bound to get at least one comment asking some variant of, “Why do you say to leave those out but not assault, murder, plague, etc.?” The argument goes that those things are also terrible in real life and could be harmful to audiences who’ve experienced them.

Sometimes this is merely a bad-faith attempt at distraction, but a lot of people are genuinely confused. I know because I used to be one of those people. Back in the day, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young Oren read up on social-justice discourse and wondered why a story about battles and war was fine, but a story about American plantation slavery was a problem. Fortunately, an older, flint-eyed, cynical version of me is here to explain the issue, so you can have a less painful growing process than I did.

We Care About Some Things More Than Others

A basic misunderstanding many of us have to overcome is the idea that every event can be neatly categorized into a certain value of good versus a certain value of bad. It’s this fallacy that leads people to think a villain who kills must be worse than a villain who tortures, since a person being dead should lead to the most badness points, right? Let me show you why that logic doesn’t hold up.

When you watched Star Wars for the first time, there’s a good chance you were sadder about Obi-Wan’s death then about Alderaan exploding. But how could that be? Obi-Wan is just one person; Alderaan was home to billions. Are you some kind of terrible monster who doesn’t care about human life?

Of course not, you’re merely experiencing the way human emotions don’t conform to mathematical values. Obi-Wan was a person you knew and cared about, whereas the population of Alderaan was just a statistic, so their deaths didn’t make as much impact. Even the film presents Obi-Wan’s death as the greater tragedy –  Leia comforts Luke after they escape the Death Star. Leia lost her whole planet; Luke lost an old man he’d known for maybe two days.

This is hardly a groundbreaking observation, but it’s important for understanding why we recommend leaving out some subjects but not others. There are countless other examples to choose from. Many people can’t stand to watch a pet or infant die* but are fine watching a gore-fest of adult murder victims. Others are grossed out by body horror but have no issue with war stories.

It does no good to tell people they shouldn’t feel what they feel because what upsets them doesn’t score high on your badness meter. No matter how well-calibrated your badness meter is, it’s not a conversation worth having, and trying to force the issue will make you look like a jerk.

Bigotry Makes Some Things More Sensitive

In the previous section, we looked at how people feel more strongly about some things than others, and we did it without ever considering bigotry or social justice. But of course, real storytelling is never completely divorced from bigotry and social justice, so let’s take a look at how those factors play into this discussion.

The bottom line is that there is no pro-murder lobby. There is no political party dedicated to the idea that soldiers should die in wars,* nor is there a super PAC trying to push through serial killer rights. On the other hand, there is an entire political party laser focused on taking away pregnant people’s bodily autonomy. Companies are constantly lobbying for the right to discriminate against Black and queer customers. Women can’t look at the news without seeing some court case where a victim of sexual violence is blamed over the length of her hemline.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Yes, murder is bad, but that’s something that as a culture we all acknowledge. A story about murder isn’t reinforcing existing attitudes that murder is fine. Of course, a story that portrayed murder as good would probably still have a problem,* but simply including a person being murdered isn’t harmful on its own.

The opposite is true for bigotry. Even if a marginalized person has never been the direct target of violence, they’ve almost certainly had to endure secondary effects. These might be microaggressions at work, catcalls when walking down the sidewalk, or hearing celebrities and politicians call their religion evil. Including bigotry in a story can bring all that bubbling to the top.

Perhaps worse, privileged people who are already disposed toward bigoted views can have their ideas reinforced by fiction. Even if the bigoted character is a villain, it’s easy for audiences to get the message that said villain is supposed to have a point, or just that they’re cool. This makes including bigotry in your story extremely risky and is one of the reasons we recommend against it in most cases.

A lot of authors add bigotry to their stories because they want to make some point about it, but here’s the hard truth: unless you have lived experience with the bigotry in question, it’s unlikely you have anything new to add to the conversation. These issues have been discussed for a long time, and including real-world bigotry in your story will probably do more harm than good. That’s why we always recommend making your point by portraying a world that doesn’t have the bigotries we’re used to in real life. It’s inspiring, and it doesn’t risk harming anyone.

Overused Tropes Make the Problem Worse

So far we’ve looked at how individual stories are affected both by people’s emotional preferences and the broader context of marginalization. But there’s something else that affects how stories are received: other stories. Normally, this isn’t controversial. We can all feel Harry Potter’s influence on the magic school genre, or see how Game of Thrones’ success has created a new wave of high-budget fantasy shows.

But this has a huge influence on which subjects are most sensitive as well. People react more harshly to some tropes because they’ve seen those tropes over and over again. Rape is the most well-known example. Rape or the threat of it is featured in countless stories, many of which don’t even meet the incredibly low bar of portraying sexual violence as a bad thing. And for those that do, a disturbing number still use the opportunity to sneak a little titillation in.

Naturally, rape isn’t the only trope that gets overused. Buried queer characters is another, along with countless more from the Magical Negro to the submissive East Asian woman. Most of the stories that use these tropes do not use them well, if such a thing is even possible. Consequently, audiences are extremely sensitive to seeing these tropes again.

There’s always a one-in-a-million chance that your story actually uses one of these tropes to make an important point, but audiences aren’t likely to give it the benefit of the doubt. Considering how many times they’ve been burned before, it’s an understandable suspicion. Including such sensitive subjects makes life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. There are plenty of ways to say something important that won’t put marginalized audiences on edge.

In case you were wondering, the solution here is not to collect a bunch of data trying to prove that some of these tropes might not be as common as they’re perceived to be. If you do collect that data, I’d love to see it; it might be useful. But it won’t change that these tropes feel overused, even if that’s just because they’re overrepresented in the most popular stories.

But Can’t Anything Bother Someone?

Whenever we talk about avoiding certain subjects out of respect for others, someone will ask, “When will it end?” Then they’ll go on to make a slippery-slope argument about how if we stop putting bigotry in our stories, soon we’ll have to take out anything that might possibly bother someone, and then there won’t be any conflict! Every story will be about fluffy bunnies eating cotton candy – such is the path of a social justice storyteller.

That’s pretty silly, but it does accidentally hit on an important point. While no one is seriously asking for all stories to be written with their personal situation in mind,* those situations are still valid. Someone who recently lost their parents could very well be upset by a story in which the parents die, even though that situation has nothing to do with structural oppression.

This is why we’re such big fans of content notices. You might have noticed that we put them on all our fiction, and we tag everything we can think of that could ruin someone’s day. We hide these notices from being accidentally seen by people who don’t want them, so there’s no downside. Not every format has that option, but when it’s available, there’s no reason not to do it. Being inclusive to as many people as possible only increases your audience, which is good for everyone involved.

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Comments

  1. Paul C

    Great article as always, Oren. If you have not seen this short story/essay collection, it is well worthwhile: Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling.
    Maurice Broaddus has a brilliant inversion of the Magical Negro in it: Super-Duper Fly — which can also be found on the Apex magazine site.

  2. Bubbles

    You do make some good points. The main thing I want to discuss is content warnings. The problem is that I’m not sure what to include and what not to include in them. Like, there are some fairly standard things that shouldn’t be much of a problem to include, but I’ve also seen content warnings for less conventional things such as an unhappy ending. I suppose you could just add content warnings for everything you can think of that might cause problems for *someone*, but then that makes authors put a lot of effort into thinking of what exactly to warn for that they could have put into other things such as the story itself, while the warnings for many less common things only help a tiny fraction of readers at most. So I think that might actually be a problem unless what should be warned for can be well-defined.

    • Fay Onyx

      I think that as a culture we are in the process of figuring out a somewhat standard list of the most commonly useful content warnings.

      Do note that some people are more thorough than others and it does vary based on the genre. For example war stories don’t need content warnings for “violence” or “death” as long as it is clear that they are war stories. On the other hand, a romance story should have a content warning for “unhappy ending” as there is an expectation for happy endings in that genre.

      The most common content warning categories that I’m aware of are (some of these are strong):
      Common PTSD and mental health triggers: Explosions, fire, abuse, sexual harassment/violence, suicide, body horror, body swapping
      Types of violence: Torture, gore, sexual violence, violence against children or animals
      Things that bring up strong memories/feelings: Harassment, sexuality, drug use, kidnapping, death
      Common phobias: Snakes, spiders and other insects, dogs
      Types of oppression: Any type of oppression that is central to the story
      Spoilers: Anything that would ruin important plot points for a story

      • Bubbles

        Thanks for the guidance! Sounds like a good list, or at least a good starting point.

    • LazerRobot

      I’ve spent some time thinking about this, too. I’m all for content notices, because I definitely want anyone reading my story to have a chance to know if it contains things that will upset them. But it might be easy for me to forget to mention something that seems innocuous to me but might bother others for specific reasons.

      Sometimes it could also get into slightly spoilery territory, I.e. main character death/unhappy ending. It’s not a total spoiler of course, as long as it’s kept relatively vague, but it might diminish the impact/surprise of that part of the story for those who aren’t sensitive to it, since they somewhat knew it was coming.

      I wish there was always a way to hide them like on this website! Then people could view them if they want. I wonder if there’s a good way to do this in a published book, like maybe “content notices on following page” and then people can skip that page if they don’t want to see them.

      • LazerRobot

        Oh, and for the record, I think the answer to this is to think critically about our work and err on the side of more notices. And also do our research. Someday there might be a more clear list of notice expectations for certain genres and such, but I think for now it’s important to just keep an open mind.

        • Bubbles

          Sorry for the late reply, but I realized what I had wanted to say to this just now. So, while I think that to some extent, erring on the side of more notices is a good thing, I’m worried that eventually there will be a point when the downsides to the author outweigh the benefits to the audience. When you start warning for things so specific or generally innocuous that only an extremely small percentage of people will ever benefit from the warnings, it needlessly takes time and effort away that the author could have put into making the story better, or even doing more important things.

          You could argue that content notices are always more important than the story, because they can help people’s real life. There is some truth to this. However, our society makes tradeoffs with even more important things all the time, such as literal lives. For instance, I have heard that the current speed limits are known to allow for a certain number of fatal crashes to occur. If they were much lower, fatal crashes might not occur, but they are not lowered to those levels simply because it would make driving inconvenient for everybody.

          Probably no one will die from a missing content warning, but convenient driving is probably more important than a story, so I suppose I can’t say exactly at what point, if any, the tradeoff should lie in this case. I was just making an analogy about tradeoffs in general. I definitely support the general idea of content warnings as well. So I think probably the best solution will be putting work into creating a definitive list of content warnings. (Although if you can make a sound case that content warnings are always more important than the story itself, I suppose it might be less important).

  3. Innes

    I think another big problem with the whole everything should be permitted opinion is that it assumes basically everyone wants to become the story police and make laws on what you can and can’t put in stories. Sure, people like that do exist (anything is possible) but on the whole the advice is always more ‘think about what grimness level your story truly needs’ and less ‘if you talk about racism once you’ll be vaporized.’ No one is denying that stories like The Hate U Give or The Fifth Season deserve to exist, but instead questioning whether are grimdark elements necessary for the story, or are just suffering for suffering’s sake.

    This isn’t especially a comment on the article, it just frustrates me how much writing advice in general and social justice oriented advice in particular devolves into ‘stop trying to force me to follow your rules.’

    • Elena

      There are certainly people who have fought to say that books like The Fifth Season don’t deserve to get awards.

      Nuance is hard to explain to people, especially when people are not ready to actually have a conversation about it. Now you have an article to reference when a conversation invites a little nuance.

  4. Odile

    Seems to me that you have exactly described how fanfiction works, with the author tagging for major warnings such as graphic depictions of violence, rape/non-con, underage sex and major character death (on archive of our own), and giving a G to E rating, and adding other tags. And while there are always discussions on how or when to apply those tags, tagging enables those stories to be told, and allows the reader to avoid them if they so wish.
    Of course, that doesn’t prevent the racist or queer burying plots.

  5. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve removed a comment for equating abortion with the “murder of babies.” This is factually incorrect and a bad faith assertion at best.

  6. Tony

    I feel like it’s also safer for someone who’s been hurt by real-world systemic persecution to write about it. It’s why Jessica Jones handled misogynistic violence better than Game of Thrones — because a woman helmed the former show, while men helmed the latter. It’s also why Holocaust survivors’ personal memoirs are better respected than, say, Ilsa: She-Wolf Of The SS.

    On the other hand, even this principle isn’t a given. For example, Ayn Rand was female, yet her writing is heavily misogynistic to the point of romanticising violent male domination. The same goes for The Sheik, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

  7. OhDearTheyWantAName

    I always enjoy your articles – they are very thought provoking. I have a question – when writing modern day low fantasy, unless my cast is purely privileged groups, I’m going to end up running across situations where bigotry is a very real part of people’s experiences. How would you suggest handling that? I’ve been presuming that I should avoid making it the main focus, and should make use of sensitivity beta reading, but I feel like erasing that altogether would be problematic as well.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      There is definitely some trickiness when writing in the real world. The line between not focusing on bigotry and erasing the experience of real people is sometimes pretty thin. This is why I write almost exclusively second world fantasy or far future scifi.

      But for your situation, my general advice is that the situation is different based on what kind of marginalization you’re talking about. As a straight white guy, the only kind I have direct experience with is antisemitism, and from that my recommendation is to just not include it in most cases. I go through my daily life without being singled out for being Jewish, so it seems reasonable that a hypothetical Jewish character could have a similar experience. You wouldn’t want to say antisemitism doesn’t exist, but it would be fine if your protag doesn’t have to deal with it, at least in a modern era.

      Otherwise, the best advice I can give is to have your story acknowledge that such bigotry exists, but not make it a huge part of the story. Your female characters might mention the time they had a sexist boss, but that doesn’t mean they need to be the targets of sexual violence in the story.

      But your instinct to seek out a sensitivity reader is a good one. They can give you specific advice where I can’t.

      • OhDearTheyWantAName

        You raise an excellent point about different people experiencing bigotry to different degrees. I always side-eye stories written in ostensibly “real-world” settings and yet the women will casually wander alone through inner city areas at night or casually go home with someone without texting their friends to let them know where they are. Which is partly why I’m wondering how to handle it – I always feel on edge for the characters in stories like that, because I read that as risky behaviour and am afraid of something happening to them, instead of being able to enjoy the narrative. Experiencing danger due to being in a marginalised group changes behaviours, in my experience (queer female human in a conservative country). I hadn’t considered that some groups are not as always on edge as the women and LGBTQIA+ communities here.

  8. Nick Sharp

    Are you sure that society understands that murder is bad? Last I check 90%+ of conflicts in main stream movies and games is done through killing. There is hardly anything more trivialized than violent death in fiction. By your metric we should strive to make this the least talked about subject.
    Also, when you say “we care more about these things” do you mean your part of the world? You can’t possibly know what every culture cares most about. Certainly some care lots more about war than you.

    • Cay Reet

      Is there any country in the world where murder is not considered a major crime?

      War is a difficult topic from a philosophical point of view. Starting a war is bad, because it’s an act of aggression usually committed with the intent of getting something (land in most cases, specific resources in others). That doesn’t mean that protecting yourself from an aggressor, even if that sometimes mean instigating a fight, is bad as well. Most cultures consider it alright to protect yourself or yours with all means available, which for most countries includes the use of an army, standing or otherwise.
      For a citizen, this can lead to killing an attacker, too. Although, for instance, the laws in Germany, where I live, state that any form of self-defence has to be ‘suitable’ – you’re not allowed to use deadly means against someone attacking you with bare hands, for instance; if you’re trained in martial arts, you’re supposed to keep injuries to a minimum when taking an attacker down.

      To use your mainstream media and games example: in most of the games I’ve ever played and most of the media I’ve ever consumed otherwise, violence perpetrated by the heroes is framed as an act of defence, of oneself or of others. The ones who use aggression in other ways usually are framed as villains (although things are less clear-cut if your hero is an anti-hero instead).

      There’s also a question of how often some things happen. Every second woman worldwide has, at one point or other, been sexually harrassed or worse in her life. Since you can’t tell before where the harrasser will stop (is it just words, groping, or will he drag me behind the next bush and rape me?), that is a very scary thing to consider. The number of people murdered each year is far, far smaller in comparison to those cases. As a woman, you have a 50/50 chance of sexual harrassment or worse, your chance of being killed by someone in your life (the end of it, clearly) is much, much smaller.

      Yes, most people think that murder is bad. A large number of people also agree that violence shouldn’t be the first solution to a problem. Violence and killing in a form of media are normally motivated by something else than ‘this guy is in my way and I’ll off him for it.’ It’s more ‘this guy is standing in my way to freeing hostages’ or ‘this guy is part of an army currently marching into my country.’ If they aren’t, chances are that the character committing the violence or killing is not the hero.

  9. Dernhelm

    Another great article, thank you for writing this! I can’t even begin to count all the times I’ve seen bad faith arguments pretending that ANY complaint whatsoever on a sadistic and gratuitous scene of torture/rape/hate crimes is hypocritical if you’re also OK with stories where the heroes kill someone in self defense, it’s great to see a good article explaining this and why they are different.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep I see that argument a lot and I figured it was about time we had a resource the next time it comes up.

      • Dernhelm

        Indeed, I’m totally going to link to this article in the future!

  10. Lily Black

    I also want to ask, what do you think about matriarchy and fantastic racism? What could go wrong here?

  11. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve deleted a comment for denying the existence of trans and nonbinary people. That kind of thing is against our comments policy and not allowed.

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