How to write sensitive topics?

by Trent

Question: So the main theme of my story is trust and distrust, tying in with the theme, my main character has trust issues. Specifically with men, even though she knows it not to be true, in her mind she can’t see men as anything other than dishonest, backstabbing rapists. The sensitive issue part comes in from the repeated trauma that caused her to think this way.

Another one of my major characters is suicidal and self harms.

So my question is how I could avoid offending readers and still be honest with what these characters have been through.

Answer: To put it simply...

Who is it you're afraid of offending? And are they your primary audience?

It's not at all surprising that someone who has suffered repeated trauma would develop a negative attitude toward those who resemble their abusers. And since most women experience bad behaviour on the part of men at some point in their lives, I doubt many female readers will be offended (as long as the subject is dealt with authentically). Everyone knows women who have had bad relationships with men and distrust men as a result.

Even those female readers who have been lucky to not have bad experiences with men are unlikely to have a problem with the story. Stories about damaged characters can be valuable because they create empathy for people who have had traumatic experiences.

If you are writing a book aimed at a male audience (which probably would mean a male
protagonist), then the trick would be to have your main character be the hero who treats this jaded woman decently. Men have a deep desire to be heroes and to win the trust, admiration, and love of women. So they enjoy reading stories from the point of view of someone who does that.

There are, naturally, some people who would prefer to be in denial about such issues. They are simply not your readership (at least for now). As a writer, your job is not to support everyone's wilful denial. It is far more meaningful to explore the human condition, to shine light on areas that have been overlooked.

You cannot please everybody, and you don't have to. But if a story is meaningful to you, and if it is authentically and skillfully written, it will likely be meaningful to a significant readership. That's the most one should strive for.

Of course, the other issue to consider is what thematic argument or message you want your story to deliver.

For instance, do you want your jaded woman to learn how to trust again with positive results (delivering the message that, on balance, taking a chance on trust is worthwhile)? Or do you want her to learn to trust with negative results (delivering the message that trust is a bad choice.)?

Do you want to create a world full of people who have different experiences with trust and distrust, so you can then demonstrate the right approach to take?

Best of luck.

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