I’ve had some difficult conversations with clients (and prospective clients) over the years. People can be…resistant to constructive criticism, despite the fact they’re paying for it—all the more so if there’s an inherent issue to the writing that stains character and plot. Some of the most delicate conversations, I find, are those in which the issues of subconscious misogyny, racism or bigotry must be raised. Writing is intensely personal, after all. But look, horror fiction is my bread and butter; *context matters, so I’m here today to help parse the difference between portraying repugnant things and absorbing them into your writing.
Fame vs infamy
When it comes to your readership, the line between character, narrator and author can be vanishingly small. They don’t know you as a human being; all they have to go on are the words you’ve put in front of them, so think about what kind of reputation you want to engender. If a character is bigoted, how clear have you made it that you do not subscribe to that world-view? Nuance is one thing – I love the complicated grimdark characters in The Blade Itself, for instance – but you need to at least show direction of travel, demonstrate character growth and the hope of redemption.
Do the right thing by your readers. If a sensitivity issue is raised and you double down against it, that is a clear choice—and one that resounds in the community. It’s not puritanism, it’s branding and business sense. I’ve known books to be pulled, authors to be de-platformed at events, and even to have books pulled because of the bullish ways they acted. Rejecting societal progress can feel like power at first, and may give you the spotlight for a short time, but more often than not it’s a losing battle with diminishing returns.
Fiction vs fact
One of the most common push-backs we editors hear with regards to (what I’ll generically call) problematic language is that it’s ‘just how people talk’. Naturalism is important, but we are not dealing with raw reportage here; you are telling us a story. Every word a **character speaks should reveal something about them – their minds and hearts lain bare to the readers. Written well, and with purpose, even the most horrific of characters can engage us. Does that mean we’re going to adopt their world-views? I would hope not, but that rather comes down to your intent and your skill. This is your power as a writer: you get to choose the truths you want to tell. You can portray the world and its people in whatever way best suits your needs and your story.
Point vs porn
There are times when your writing takes over. In creating a scene or a situation, you can get so caught up in it all that you linger too long. Maybe you want to evoke just how awful this character is; perhaps you want to get across a real sense of helplessness or horror. In such moments, it can be hard to accept editing advice. All is laid out for us; it is powerful, it is dramatic, it is everything you imagined and more. But ‘more’ can be the problem. ‘More’ takes us past the event horizon; it is the moment observation becomes indulgence – where an author is either encouraging the reader to enjoy the excess voyeuristically, or is enjoying it so much themselves that the dramatic point is lost. (And yes, I know that there ***are occasions where excess is the point.) Recognise when such impulses are damaging to the story, and try to rein them in.
Power vs responsibility
As other, shrewder people have noted before me, writing is just about the closest thing to telepathy that you’ll find. You may choose the words, but you cannot know who your readers will be, or what impact your writing will have on them. People are not machines to be programmed, of course, but we are all affected by the culture we consume. The way that our characters, narrators and plot treat other people – particularly anyone who is not able-bodied, straight, white, or male – matters immensely. It all either reinforces or challenges present-day injustices, and those rippled messages can become waves.
Now, there are plenty of people out there who will tell you that this is not your responsibility; that your only job is to create the best story you can – and I do have some sympathy with that viewpoint. However, there is a simple way in which we can be both responsible and respectful of our readers without compromising our artistic vision: the use of Content Warnings. ****Content Warnings give readers more power to choose the kind of book they most enjoy, and avoid anything that will cause them harm.
What kinds of harm? Let’s consider rape statistics for a moment. 20% of women aged 16 and above in England and Wales have experienced sexual assault. 7 million people, by estimate, all traumatised by the experience. Don’t exacerbate that. Do you really need to write that rape scene? You might. But if so, does it have to be so detailed? I don’t know. There may be justifiable reasons. Even so, it would be simple, cost-free, and morally right to at least alert your readers to the content. Give them a chance to avoid reliving it.
Using content warnings should be no more controversial than listing ingredients at your local supermarket, yet the outrage some people spew at the notion is volcanic. Don’t be that guy. Seriously. If you put off a few readers, it’s probably to the good. They wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway, and would likely leave stinking reviews. If your audience actively wants extreme content, guess what? You’ve just advertised it on the cover. You’ll actually get more readers, and they’ll be custom fit to your brand. Win-win.
Words are your tools, and you have more than hammers to hand. Handled with skill, they can have a powerful effect on your readers: drawing them into your stories, carrying them on a memorable journey, forging a bond of trust and loyalty between you. There are many occasions where it is entirely appropriate to write about extreme, repellent and horrific things, and all the while it remains important to the story you’re telling, while it is revealing the human truths you want us to focus on, it can (and should) stand firm. However, all creators have a responsibility too: one of contributing to society; one of care for the readers; one of simple self-interest.
Do no harm.
If an editor raises sensitivity issue with you, it does not automatically make you a bad person, nor does it mean that your editor reviles you. More often than not, the authors I’ve spoken to were entirely unaware of a subtext they’d embedded, or the underlying prejudices and behaviours they reinforced. We are the products of our upbringing, and most of us are trying to do better. I treat these things as problems to recognise and fix in the text, just like any other.
Society continues to shift and grind along the fault-lines of aspirational, acceptable, and intolerable behaviour, and we all stumble from time to time. What matters is that we learn, grow as people, and try to keep up.
If your ego refuses to accept such change, you’ll only get left behind.
* Particularly when dealing with the darker side of human nature. The genre is packed with desperate situations, heightened emotion, and some pretty vicious characters.
** Or indeed a narrator.
*** For most genres. Honourable exceptions include extreme horror and literal pornography, where extended scenes of gratification are the primary draw for readers. No judgement if that’s your bag.
**** Content warnings needn’t be explicit, simply a list of any traumatic scenes/topics involved. A quick look at GoodReads reveals well over a hundred such listings stretching from Abusive Relationships and Acid Attacks to Whipping and White Supremacy.