I’ve been told more than once that I should put trigger warnings in some of my books. For example, Lavender Fields has a couple scenes where the main character, an angel, is tortured by Asmodeus, a very dark angel. It never occurred to me to place a trigger warning about torture (which is always horrifying and it should trigger feelings of anger and sorrow no matter what) but one reader got very upset with me.
Unfortunately other than the real obvious ones, like rape on the page or child abuse, what might trigger someone is very hard to predict because we all have had different experiences and react differently to things. To give you a couple examples from my own experience, I cannot read anything that connects violence (or threat thereof) with sexual pleasure. BDSM or some of these new dark romances are out of the question for me because I know I will be upset (to put it mildly). A scene in Outlander that nobody else even seems to remember, where Jamie gets a little aggressive with his wife while having sex, made me stop reading a series that I otherwise loved. I just couldn’t stomach it.
Another thing I cannot handle is drug abuse in stories, especially if the main characters are young. I had a friend who wrote amazing YA gritty stories (fabulous writer) but a lot of her main characters had issues with drug abuse. I had to tell her I could no longer read her work. Having had two sons who got involved with drugs in their teens made me hyper sensitive to that kind of thing.
You never know what can trigger someone. A newly divorced woman might be triggered by scenes of infidelity if her husband cheated on her. My son gets triggered by heavy metal music because of a bad experience he had as a teen. I have a friend who cannot read or listen to anything that deals with cancer after almost losing her life to it at the age of 27. I can’t stand bar scenes because bars were the stage for a very difficult time in my life. We all have our triggers and while some are more common than others, the point is that it is almost impossible to predict what will upset someone else. Sometimes the most ordinary of things can throw someone’s emotions into a meltdown.
So my question is, should we as authors use trigger warnings (other than the big ones like rape, physical abuse, etc) and how do we know when to use them? I have a tendency to mix elements of different genres into my romances which makes it even more difficult to figure out. A mystery reader won’t expect to see a trigger warning for violence or even rape on a gritty book about sex traffickers’, right? I didn’t think of a trigger warning for Lavender Fields because the blurb clearly specified that he was dealing with the forces of evil.
I recently started adding a warning on my book descriptions on Amazon. My upcoming book Queen of Hearts deals with violence against women so I added something to the description and on my foreword inside the book. I was unsure if I should have added something like that for my fairytale retelling Kiss of the Swan where there are scenes about (not on page, but mentioned) violence against women as well. In my mind, one that started listening to Grimm’s Fairytales even before she could read on her own, fairytales are inherently dark and cruel so I didn’t. But should I have?
As a GenXer/Baby Boomer I am also a bit more “immune” to certain things. I grew up in a time where personal sensibilities were not much taken into account, where people didn’t tiptoe around tough issues on the off chance it would hurt someone’s feelings. I’m not saying that was the right attitude either. I’m just explaining why people of my generation seem to be more tolerant of certain things–not because we feel they don’t matter, but because we have built a sort of emotional armor against them. That alone makes it harder for me sometimes to identify what could be a trigger in my stories.
I’d love to hear your opinion on this. Should trigger warning be a thing in fictional novels and if so which ones should be identified as necessary?