Offensive Content?

I know a lot of authors say that we should write what we want the way we want, regardless of who gets offended by it, but I kind of get the feeling that that only applies to POPULAR authors. Ones that can say whatever they want without fear of losing their fanbase. Like, Stephen King could write the most offensive piece of work ever, but his fans are so loyal that they'd be willing to overlook it, while I, on the other hand, would probably convince what few followers I have to never touch one of my books again. So in that regard, is it better to express ourselves the way we want, or please our fans?

I guess the question is...what kind of offensive content do you want to include and more importantly, why are you including it?

I'm not really asking for me. I try to put as little offensive content in my stories as possible. Appropriate for younger readers, but enjoyable for older ones. The question just occurred to me and I thought I'd see what you guys' opinions are.

By some strange coincidence, I've just been reading Fahrenheit 451!

I don't think there's a rule that "popular" authors can write what they want without fear of a backlash. Rather, those authors who have "gotten away with it", so to speak (Nabokov with Lolita, Salinger with Catcher in the Rye etcetera) have done so not because they were popular writers, but because they were good writers. And part of being a good writer, I think, is writing the truth. They didn't back down out of fear of causing offence. Rather, they wrote what they needed to write, what the story demanded they write.

That's the attitude I take. I write what the story - not the audience - demands. If someone quits reading because they don't like it, so be it. If you write to please others, you end up pleasing nobody.

People will always find something to be offended by. I've seen people get offended over the stupidest things when it comes to literature. In a lot of cases, it's to an extent where I have to question if the reader understands they're reading fiction.

Honestly, I just treat it like any other art form. If the more questionable aspects of a story don't make people stop and think, or have some other strong reaction to it, then I feel like it's a failure as art.

I write what I want, and what the story wants. You'll never be happy with your work if you just focus on pleasing the readers.

To me, excluding potentially offensive or adult material from books geared toward the correct age groups is...unrealistic. Racism, sexism, politics, religion, sex, etc. are all possible points of contention when it comes to literature or visual art.

However, excluding those things just makes a story unbelievable.

If I were to write a novel set in the modern United States and I excluded the rampant issues we have here - people would tear me apart for writing about an unrealistic wish-fulfillment utopia.

Another example (that I've actually considered) -

I could write about the BDSM lifestyle and how 50 Shades got so many things wrong.

I could write it as non-fiction, I could write it as urban fantasy, sci-fi, whatever, as long as the messages are still there.

However, there are a ton of ways something like that could offend people. Even if I focused on the sensual aspects and didn't put any sex in it, there are plenty of people who would find it offensive. Some people see it as satanic (or otherwise against religion.) Some people see it as abuse. Some people see it as twisted or disgusting. And of course, some people see it as sexist (even though there are a lot of female dominants) and so on.

Some people would even get offended because they're protective over 50 Shades and what they think it teaches them about the lifestyle.

I'm going to piggyback on what Bonnie wrote and say that even if you were to write to please your fans, you still have to decide which of your fans you're aiming to please. They're not all one mass of readers, and you'll always hit a crossroads on what'll turn someone off versus hook someone else in.

That's why it's best to write for yourself (with healthy reminders that other people will read it, too). You're never such a special snowflake that no one else will share your tastes, and then you'll always have a definitive answer on whether Your Ideal Audience (you) would like A, B, C or not. It keeps you and your tone focused and your writing style consistent. And, when you're lucky to have enough readers to get some kind of backlash, you'll know right away whether it's something to change or keep; Your Ideal Fan is the only one you're there to please/offend/not offend, depending on whatever the heck you're going for.

In some ways, the question of offensive content is complex. I think people are right in believing that 1) you have no way of predicting what will offend somebody, and that 2) chances are that if you write something you'd like to read, there will be a large group who will read it too.

That said, there are some fairly predictable things that will offend some percentage of people--swearing, violence, and sex. If you're hoping to write a children's book, you're making your potential audience smaller by using the word "fuck" a lot (ever?). Ditto sex and violence. And while children's books are an obvious example, some adults won't read a book with a lot of swearing. There, you can sometimes choose to have a larger audience by removing it or making it less common.

Similarly, one author I know was horribly abused (sexually and physically) as a child, and many of her books have sexual themes. I've read a few of them, and descriptions of others. Many have a high "ick" factor. It impacts their sales on Amazon, partly because they appear in stories (superhero, for example) where you're not expecting to see them. Personally, I'd find it easier to read some of these topics in a biography/memoir as opposed to a genre that I read for fun.

I'd never tell her not to write it, but it's a good example of how writing for yourself can make your potential audience considerably smaller.

It's something to keep in mind.

Aaaand just to piggyback on what Jim said, because God forbid I make an independent point, you'll save yourself a lot of headaches through the marketing of your story.

Does it LOOK like a book where I'd expect to see certain things? The Watchmen storylines technically follow superheroes, but there is more than enough unexpectedly serious themes put in that don't fit the superhero story stereotype. But Watchmen has many reviews, a grittier than usual cover and logo, a helpful blurb touching on the maturity level, and enough word of mouth to warn/filter potential readers.

My personal opinion is that it's the reader's responsibility to decide to start or stop reading a story, but that it's tho author's job to orient the reader going in to get the desired effect or mood set up. The example I'd give for that is Happy Tree Friends. The little shorts are designed to be as adorable and innocent as possible on the surface to get the creators' intentionally solicited reaction of offence and shock. They've agreed to take on the backlash from that, because that was their goal all along, and that's what gives the show its punch. On the other hand, look at something like South Park. It starts with a warning - not about the actual content - that generally works to tip people off that it isn't a 'nice' show, or else why preface it?

So when you write, think about what you're putting out there, but also how. What does it look like? What assumptions can be made? How hard does a reader have to work to find the 'real' story? If the reader is offended and reacts, is it a reaction you can deal with and accept?

My first post is basically a filter. If you read it and decide it's worth it to keep going, congrats: you just discovered the tone for the rest of the story, and while it probably won't get worse, you know to brace in case it does.

I'd like to take another shot at it.

Offensiveness for its own sake - no. Offensiveness for the sake of the art itself - always.

It is true that there's some kind of holistic approach. That your writing/serial has a baseline you should stick to. Which is determined not only by the writing but the stuff around it, too.

But even in the most charming and inoffensive childrens book there is a character meaner than the rest, even in really bloody grimdark stuff there are more innocent and sweet characters and moments - else you risk that the audience loses interest, gets apathic.

Mood fluctuates. It is perfectly fine to use swear words for emphasis, even if you're not normally using them.

For me that means: The offensive content depends on the character I focus on. Some are foul mouthed, racist pieces of shit. Some can't stand swearing and will tear them apart for that.

I trust the audience knows to differentiate between the author and the work. I did warn them, after all. :)

I'm going to jump on in with this topic since my serial, at times, is heavy on the adult content.

Whenever I sit down to plan a new story arc, and I use plot boards, outlines, the occasional dinner napkin when something hits me and I need to scribble it down, I never do so with the intent of purposely being 'graphic' just to cause shock value. I never write a scene and then say, "Okay, now how can I make this raunchier to offend as many people as possible or make them squirm or need a shower after reading?" Due to the dark nature of my story, I often find myself in these 'mature content' areas rather suddenly.

Most of what I write is initially outlined until characters are fleshed out and start taking on a life of their own. Once that happens, my outlines change quite frequently to include many sub-stories which emerge and I'm often surprised at where my characters take me. That being said, I'll run right into a very graphic scene, play it out, and then pause when finished to say, "I can't believe I just wrote 'that'." Then the hesitation kicks in and I start to wonder, does this cross the line? Do I edit that out? Water it down? Is it too much?

What usually happens is I leave them alone and move on, knowing that such scenes are in the 'draft' stage and I can go back and decide their fate in the editing process.

When I get back to those scenes later and re-read them, I initially think, I'll tone them down a bit, and when I try, I automatically lose something essential to the story, no matter how graphic it is, and it feels "false" somehow. Like I just tampered with something very raw and honest that, graphic or not, needs to be there.

Do I risk scaring readers off with very graphic content? Of course I do. Everyone reads for different reasons and sometimes those 'yucky' feeling scenes are just not what readers want to suffer through, even when it is fictional.

But if your primary concern is to the story, then I believe you need to keep it real, keep it raw and honest, or you risk losing essential scenes, graphic or not, that bear relevance later on in your tale.

Since I know that I am writing an 'adults only' story, I make sure I post disclaimers all over the place (which in and of itself becomes another possible deterrent for readers that might not even read the first page after such disclaimers). But it's my responsibility to make sure those disclaimers are posted to protect the unsuspecting reader not prepared to read such scenes.

I have a particular scene in Chapter 2 where there is a brutal rape played out in all its 'yucky' detail. Is that necessary? For my story, unfortunately, it is. And that's my call as the storyteller, privy to the entire scope of the story and future episodes where it bears importance. Now, am I writing a story about a bunch of serial rapists who travel about the countryside raping everyone they find? Of course not. I think that is the difference between writing something shocking, and purposefully going all-out for the shock appeal only. The latter, I feel, is gimmicky and often disguises poor writing by inducing strong emotional reactions to capture readership.

The irony for me in writing graphic scenes is when I wrestle with them afterwards, I'll sit down in front of the television, turn on the news, and find myself suddenly exposed to some horrific news story played out in 'real' life, and say to myself, "Every time I think I've crossed a line in my fiction, something horrible happens in the world that I could never have thought up, making my questionable content pale by comparison." ... and that's when I get that 'yucky' feeling.

Just my two cent.

Just to mention something that's only been addressed implicitly - tossing in a NSFW (Not Safe For Work) tag or equivalent is a good idea, related to what Tartra was mentioning above about audience expectations. That may even be a draw for some people. I also don't think popularity is necessarily something that causes fans to "overlook" things... if one of my preferred writers started swearing for no reason, I'd have issues with that. (And if it was a different serial or book series, I likely wouldn't read it.)

Of course, what brought work to mind is the fact that I'm a teacher, and so there's pretty much a zero tolerance for swearing in my workplace. Which tends to extend into the personal as well, you don't want anything to slip out... in class, or even in the supermarket. (If I wanted to write erotica? Forget it. Even reading it feels questionable.) So for characters who might swear a lot, I'd be shaking my head going "There has to have been a better way to put that" - and why exactly would a writer be swearing for emphasis? better be one of the only times, it gets old real fast for me - and that sure as heck can't be the only draw. Again, for me. I think I said something similar in a more specific thread about language a year or so ago.

I suppose I should throw my hat into the ring here. I use plenty of offensive stuff, because I enjoy using it in humor. Some of that is black humor, some of it is more juvenile. I loaded plenty of offensive material into the story early on, including lots of cussing, at least partially because it's going to be that kind of story. Get a lot of it out of the way at first so that people know what to expect and then move on from there, that sort of thing.

Paradoxically, I think it both adds to and detracts from the realism at times, and in good ways. A guy gets his arm cut off, chances are good he's not going to hop around talking about goshdarning the motherhuncher who cut off his freaking arm. Nor would he be darning them to heck. That's the kind of stuff that happens when you find a stranger in the alps.

Other times, when you have a bunch of bad people preparing to attack a public place like a police station, movie theatre, or even an entire city in what could be arguably compared to a real life tragedy, it might be good to take the whole thing over the edge by having them stop at a midwestern tourist trap that's something really offensive, like the world's biggest ball of exhumed Native American bones, complete with gift shop that sells allegedly replica bones as souvenirs. If you can make it ridiculously offensive, it can take away from thinking too hard about the hole "blowing up buildings" thing. Or at least that's my take on it.

Either way, by that point a person would be well aware of the type of story they're reading.

Well, I can't really add anything that hasn't already been said as fa as advice goes. I guess it really just depends on what your goals are. I will offer my own experience, I suppose, and you can make of it what you will:

The majority of my writing the past decade has been erotic work of a certain very niche fetish-within-a-fetish variety.

My erotic work has gained me a small following and earned me some money despite the fact that I've never once catered to reader demands or suggestions or advice, and the subject matter I write seems very offensive or stupid to people outside of the small niche I write in. While erotic writing does have it's own set of arguably unique qualifiers versus most other genres, I will point out that a "friendly rival" of mine is much more successful than me at selling his work within the same general niche, because he does a better job marketing himself, and will make a point to include things some of his readers recommend. Especially lately, he seems to be making a point to include things his readers suggest, because he really wants to grow that following, and by extension, grow his sales. (Not to accuse him of money-grubbing, he writes because he enjoys it and enjoys entertaining people first and foremost. But the money helps as an incentive.)

At the same time, he will also still include things that those same readers complain about, because other readers want to see it, or it's tied to his own fetishes, and that's how he stays interested in the writing. So on the one hand, he's pleasing as many people as he can by including as much as he can (within the reasonable context of the story), but on the other hand, he's not letting the naysayers stop him from just doing what he wants as well.

Me, I just can't force myself to include things I don't want to include. So, I'm sure my own numbers suffer a lot because I just do my own thing, even when I get more complaints than not. (I'm also pretty crap at self-marketing, but then, it is a super-niche interest, so I'm not expecting much growth ability.) At the same time, I still get new readers, and old readers stick with me, and some readers who may not like what I wrote six months ago will come back to see what I've written recently and decide they like that stuff and decide to stick around again. I write mostly just to write, but having a following and feedback and a little money helps to stay motivated to keep writing. But I'm pretty happy with what I've already gotten, and I see new readers as an unexpected bonus every time, as opposed to a goal.

That said, I've stopped posting at places or pulled my stuff from sites where all I ever got were negative reviews or low numbers. Not out of shame or hiding, but just because that place obviously wasn't a suitable spot to put my stories. And again, this is all revolving around a potentially very offensive subject matter. I guess if there's something to take away from this, it's that offense, and what people do with it, is largely out of your control, and people are going to either follow you or not. Maybe the offense will get you more notice, maybe it will drive more readers away. I would say don't compromise on your story despite reader complaints, but maybe at the same time, if you find most of your audience is being repulsed by your story, you might want to look for a different audience.

I don't seem to have a problem doing both; I stare unflinchingly into the abyss, and it sends back fan mail. I've approached racism, rape, and general human inequality from the perspectives of both victims and perpetrators. I've made a sexual sadist serial killer sympathetic (kinda... long story. Roughly 60k words long, in fact)... and I even do smut on the side (rarely canon, never posted on the main site)...

I've had two complaints thus far.

One from some guy who didn't like my "character focused" approach to storytelling- which I responded with "dude, that's how I write and I'm not changing it for you. Stop whining or leave, I don't care which"- which ended in him posting a couple deranged rants about how I was a shit writer and he never liked my writing to begin with in the comments section that I deleted.

The other from some crazy SJW wackjobs. Apparently I offended one of them who begged her tumblr followers to hate on me for a while... seems she got bored with it eventually, after it became clear I wasn't the type who cared if someone on the internet was mean to me... Anywho, got a few death threats... apparently, saying women are capable of raping men makes me sexist and I should kill myself, who knew?

After I bragged (yes, I bragged... I consider it a point of pride) that I was getting death threats for *promoting equality*... they gave up. I'd like to imagine some of them maybe realized they were wrong, but I doubt it.


So, yeah. I give you my default advice: go with what feels right for you. It may not be the fastest way to grow the brand- but that doesn't stop it from being the easiest way to continue the work.


Besides, controversy actually attracts readers, not repulses them. This is something Grand Theft Auto built its entire f-ing brand on the back of. And look at The DaVinci Code. The movie was utter unmitigated shit, and it was only successful because a bunch of Christians protested it for being anti-religious.

If they'd said nothing, it would have died an obscure death, remembered in the same breath as After Earth, Jupiter Ascendant, and Shyamalan's career.

So. Yeah. Embrace the controversy. Then make it scream your name. When the neighbors show up to figure out what's going on, invite them inside to watch.

The internet is huge. It has a lot of weird corners where strange folk hang out. If you want to write something offensive, someone (lots of someones) wants to read it. There's a place for all sorts of things. Dinosaur-people erotica on Amazon seems to get a lot of laughs and shares on Facebook, but that's free publicity, and I bet a few folk discovered it because their coworker posted it on Facebook with "OMG who writes/reads this crap?" Not that they'd admit to reading it, probably, but the stuff sells.

The only caveat - if you think it's offensive, your writing it probably won't appeal to the readers who like it, and the readers who are also offended probably won't like it, either.

I'm writing probably a lot. There are no hard rules. Anything can work when done well.

Someone above said that offensiveness for its own sake is problematic, and I agree with that. Dropping the F-bomb just to do it gets boring VERY quickly. That being said, shying away from language or sex or whatever else can also ring false (the hardened gangster probably isn't going to say 'fiddlesticks'...unless it'd be really funny for him to do so, I guess).

Personally, I'm not a big fan of writing sex scenes, so I just gloss over them when they absolutely have to happen. I curse a lot in the real world, but I keep that under control when I'm writing, for the most part. Violence doesn't bother me at all, but I'm also not about to go into gory detail when it isn't absolutely essential to the plot.

Just my two cents.