I was in an internet conversation a few weeks ago about trigger warnings. One person in the discussion had stated that they thought warnings were bullshit. Immediately this person was jumped on. Granted their statement was a blanket statement but it brought-up an important topic when it comes to writing and posting your writing on the internet. Trigger warnings and when they should be used.
I understood part of what they were trying to convey. That we can’t know every single thing that will trigger someone. For instance, I have a crack story about a ladybug invading the FBI office and no one can kill it. Now, there could be someone out there that is deathly afraid of ladybugs, or bugs in general and I don’t know about it. Do I warn that the story contains bugs? No. Why? Because honestly, it’s a bug. Most people hate bugs. It’s kind of universal and since the title of the story has Ladybug in it whoever clicks on the story already knows that it will contain a bug.
What should you warn for then, you might ask. Well, there are several significant issues to warn for like rape, incest, underage sex, self-harm, graphic depictions of violence or gore, torture, physical/mental/emotional abuse of either adults or children, and pedophilia. Each of these plot lines has the potential to do serious emotional harm if they are not warned for in your stories. I have known several people since entering fandom that have been unduly triggered because a story was not properly warned for. It is inconsiderate and quite frankly if you don’t warn, you are and asshole.
What about commercial fiction? Most people who buy commercial books are savvy enough to see the potential issues that a book may pose. It should almost be assumed that if you are picking up a crime drama or hard mystery* that there is the possibility of violence against women, graphic, descriptive violence, or some kind of abuse against women and/or children. That is the nature of those genres. Most books about survivors and coming back from trauma you are told right away in the description what the trauma is and you can easily make the choice of whether you are picking-up that commercial title or not.
A spy novel is usually automatically going to have some level of violence. Sometimes there will be psychological and physical torture, this too should almost be a given and the reader should have a good understanding of what they are getting into when they pick-up a spy novel or series. I started reading spy novels in junior high and didn’t quite understand the genre and got into some books that were probably better left till I was older. But, what it did do is let me know what I could possibly be in for when I was ready to delve further into that type of novel.
Now, the genres that are most often abused about warnings are science fiction and fantasy. Many times authors choose not to add in any significant warnings to these works. The reading public then has to try to make their own informed decisions and in the case of fantasy, and I include urban fantasy in this as well, I always error on the side of caution. Too many times I’ve picked-up what looked to be an amazing book, only to have the abuse come out of nowhere and slap you in the face. I’ve often recommended certain fantasy books but always warn the person I’m giving the book to the content of the book. It just seems to me the right thing to do.
That’s all well and good for commercial fiction, you might say, but we are mostly talking about fan-fiction or free online fiction. This is where I think it is more important than ever that trigger warnings must apply. Especially when we are talking about fandom. When you click on that story that has an awesome description on it and you settle down to read your favorite fandom characters and, BAM, a rape scene happens. Or some kind of violence or abuse is thrust upon you and there was no warning. It is irresponsible of the writer to have not warn for these scenes. As readers we don’t want to see Tony DiNozzo all of a sudden be the victim of sexual violence, or Rodney McKay being physically or emotionally abused by someone. However, if we are warned for it we go in knowing what to expect and though we feel emotionally torn-up that this is happening we can then know that there will hopefully be a healing resolution.
Some fan-fiction authors believe that trigger warnings are bullshit. What they fail to realize is that real life victims of rape, physical or sexual abuse, violence, self-harm and the other significant triggers, are reading these stories. If the warning is there they can make the informed decision not to read that story. Often times, though, when the warning isn’t there and the person reads the story, encounters the part of the story where the rape or violence takes place that reader could be significantly triggered. You have no idea how that person will react to the story. You don’t know what is going on or has gone on in their life and you don’t know if that story isn’t going to do some kind of damage to them emotionally.
Okay, so what am I saying here? Don’t be an asshole. If you are a fan-fiction or original fiction writer that shares your work online, even if you think it is bullshit, warn for the major possible triggering events in your story. If you have rape, violence, abuse and any of the other plot devices mentioned above warn for them. Let your readers make as much of an informed decision about your story as possible. Yes, you may not get as many likes, kudos and comments but are you writing the story for a pat on the back or are you writing it for yourself? If you are writing for yourself and being kind enough to share the story, also be kind please be courteous to warn.
*(I make the distinction because there is a huge market for cozy mysteries that often do not touch on the warnings being discussed. Rarely will a cozy involve rape or incest and very rarely will the violence be graphic.)