Along with a couple familiar ones, I picked up a new beta reader for The Association, and she asked me for a list of trigger warnings before she started reading.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a trigger warning is typically a short list of possibly traumatic material within a piece of media. An example might be suicide or sexual assault, but as far as I am aware, there isn’t a definitive list, and I’m not sure there even could be.
To be very clear, I am not bothered at all by this request from the beta reader, and I was happy to provide one for her, it only got me thinking about the idea as a whole. I’ve written before about wanting to produce accessible content, and mental health is a big part of accessibility, but I hadn’t thought too hard about this before, especially since I don’t write “serious” stuff, but it’s important and, like many things, complex.
I hadn’t thought about the triggers in The Association for a multitude of reasons, including that the book is meant to be comedic, that most of the sensitive topics are “obvious” from being in the murder mystery genre, and that I’m already trying to be delicate with certain things. That isn’t to say traumatic things don’t happen to people in my writing, but I try to not be flippant about those things unless tonally it’s called for. That all sounds like a copout, and honestly, it probably is, but here we are.
So when I started the list of triggers, I realized I just wasn’t sure exactly what to include. I searched for lists to get my mind going because, ya know, I’ve been in the weeds with this book for a long time, so the fact that someone dies horrifically on the page doesn’t really resonate with me, the author who’s rewritten that scene a million times, like it might with someone reading it for the first time. But also because there are things that I wouldn’t even consider adding to the list because they just never occurred to me/don’t affect me, but they might be common for others. Or they might be really uncommon, but maybe those triggers should be included anyway too?
That was my biggest issue: how do I know what all the possible triggers are? (Just to clarify, because I list it in this post as an example does not mean it occurs in The Association.) Some things were obvious after I read over a pretty extensive list of possibilities: death, suicide, sexual assault, but others weren’t like disordered eating which is kind of funny because I’ve got a binge eating issue myself that rears its ugly head when I’m especially anxious or depressed which is arguably triggered behavior, and yet it still wasn’t top of mind.
And then I thought a little more and couldn’t decide exactly what qualified under those topics. If we look at disordered eating, there are things that are clear: if a character is binging and purging then yup, that needs a trigger warning. If he’s poking at his visible ribs in the mirror and calling himself a lardass, then yeah, that could be problematic for readers. But what if a character throws up at all? Or eats a tub of ice cream after a break up then feels bad about? Or turns down a doughnut? Or what if they just discuss those things? It’s hard to tell what qualifies, and everyone can give you a different answer, and all of them can be right.
My more moderate issue was: what the fuck have I written? After I compiled the list, I was like:
I told the beta reader I was being overzealous with the list just to be careful to cover all the topics (and of course I’m second guessing myself as I do more research), but everything I included was pretty legit, and looking at it all broken down like that made me feel sort of yucky. I know this is a me problem, I know that traumatic situations are part of life and need to be part of fiction, and I’m not suggesting that any book full of triggering situations and language is inherently bad or that I’m going to change my writing going forward, I just thought, I’m going to market this with a comedic slant, is that still…okay? Also, what the fuck have I done to these characters?
And the smallest issue is, does disclosing these things ruin the story? If you’re picking up a murder mystery, well, you might be pissed if no one dies, so a trigger warning for “death” means close to nothing in regard to spoilers. But one for “suicide” possibly “gives away” too much of a plot point. I understand the essence of these warnings–so the reader isn’t shocked by them and doesn’t mentally spiral or so the reader can avoid a piece all together–but if the issue isn’t a trigger for you, and you know it’s coming up, you might be bummed.
But I know logically that someone asking for trigger warnings isn’t trying to “ruin” the story for themselves or others, they’re just trying to enjoy media. And we just gotta let people enjoy things, man! Again, I’m not complaining that anyone wants or needs these things, I’m just trying to suss out how to do it properly.
I don’t think most people want trigger warnings, but that isn’t a reason to not include them. Personally, there are a couple things that, if I know they’re a part of a piece of media, I’ll chose to not consume it, and maybe that’s what people actually want? Not a preparation for what’s to come, but a warning for things they want to avoid. I don’t know, and I’m not here to tell other people how they should enjoy their pastime activities, I just want to help. So I decided to create a page for all the trigger warnings for my books. It will be optional for readers, so if you don’t want to know, you never have to see it, but if you’re interested it can easily be accessed. I don’t know that it will ever be perfect, I’m just a writer, and I’m already wearing as many hats as I can on this self-publishing journey so adding mental health professional isn’t exactly something I was prepared for, but this is what I can do for now, so I will!