Jennifer Lyon

Wednesday, March 24th, 2021
Trigger Warnings

I was scrolling through my FB feed, and saw an author upset at a scene in a book she read that was a “trigger” for her. She was mad that the book did not come with a Trigger Warning.

For clarification, a trigger warning is a statement alerting the reader to content that may be upsetting or disturbing. For instance, if the book has rape, rough sex scenes or unexpected violence. This allows someone who may have PTSD from a past traumatic event to avoid a book that may “trigger” them.

It’s a nice idea, sure. But is it realistic? I have questions:

  1. Who defines what will upset each reader who picks up my book? Is killing an animal something that needs a trigger warning? What if it’s a beast from hell? Or a creature a demon witch raised from old bones? Does that need a trigger warning?
  2. How much responsibility does the author have?
  3. How much responsibility does the reader have?
  4. Should authors change with the times?

Who defines which book needs a trigger warning?

I have returned exactly one book to Amazon for content. I read the first chapter in which the main character mentally made fun of a woman for the way she walked on her prosthetic foot. He made clear in his thoughts he was fully aware that she was an amputee. I slammed the book closed and never read another word. I returned that book for a refund because I couldn’t live with that book earning any of my money.

But what kind of trigger warning would that book possibly have? The hero is a disgusting bully? An amputee is disrespected? How about, Jennifer Lyon this book is not for you?

That last one sounds silly, but it illustrates a point. Each of us can read the same scene and have entirely different reactions. It happens all the time. What if that character I assumed was the hero of the story turned out to be attacked by a pack of rabid coyotes and the woman saved him? And a result, he grows a heart and soul and learns how to be a real human being?

I’ll never know. I personally reacted so badly, I couldn’t read another world. But others may not have been affected the same way. Many may had been cheering his downfall and feel a measure of satisfaction at seeing it—if that’s what happened.

I think there’s a careful line to be walked here. First and foremost, if an author thinks there’s something in the book that needs a trigger warning, then that’s totally the author’s prerogative. I put at the bottom of my trilogies that the books are part of a trilogy. I feel readers deserve to know that. I suppose that’s a trigger warning of sorts. Many readers feel they’ve been burned by buying a book they think is a full length story, only to discover it’s only the first book in a trilogy. To me, that’s reasonable.

I’ve also warned of steamy sex scenes. I don’t like the idea of some reader expecting a “clean” (hate that term) romance picking up mine.

I loathe the idea of some entity out there deciding which books must come with trigger warnings. Reading is so subjective. What if some entity or governing body of trigger warnings decided that my hating the book meant we should warn readers that the book contains an amputee? I’d hate that a hell of a lot more than I did that book. That’s a terrible form of discrimination that casts blame on the amputee, rather than the bully.

I don’t want to go down that revolting slippery slope.

How much responsibility does the author have?

I worried about scenes in my Savaged Illusions Series trigging some readers. In my view, that series walked the line between romance and a little bit of woman’s fiction because it does have tragedy in it. A woman struggles with memories of a trauma, and I chose not to put a trigger warning in because it would have also been a spoiler. It’s a tough call.

One way around that is to put clues in the blurb of the book. For instance, in Savaged Dreams, book one of the Savaged Illusions Series, I have a sentence that reads: At fourteen years old, she survived an attack by a famous musician. I felt that gave a decent hint that her past was dark and potentially problematic for some readers.

The author has responsibility to give readers an idea of the book they are buying, and a blurb is an excellent tool, along with the cover and marketing material. But she or he should not be forced to put in a list of trigger warnings like lawyers warning of side effects in a pharmaceutical commercial.

How much responsibility does the reader have?

I wish I could remember if I read the blurb of the one book I returned to Amazon in disgust. Did I do my part in figuring out if that book was for me before I bought it?

If I didn’t, I should have. Readers have a responsibility too. I have a pretty good idea of the types of books I like and dislike. For example, despite being a Christian by faith, I don’t read or judge books marketed as Christian Romance (or whatever the current jargon is). While I’ve read some I enjoyed, I’ve also found others triggered some bad memories. It’s nothing at all against the genre or authors, and as an author I support those writers one hundred percent.

I just don’t want to read the books to force me to relive a painful past that includes the death of someone I loved. I recognize my trigger and respect it. But if I don’t take the time to at least read the blurb, then get annoyed because I end up reading what I didn’t want to—that’s on me.

The reader does have some responsibility too.

Should authors change with the times?

This one is so tricky. It’s like arguing political correctness which is open to wildly varying interpretations. All I can do here is give you my view. Remember I mentioned the reader who was venting about a book not having a trigger warning? Despite not fully agreeing with her, I read every word of her rant. Why? Because I care about readers. I listen when readers have complaints, even when it’s not about my book specifically. I care so much, I’m writing this blog.

But I have to balance that against things like giving away spoilers in the plot or feeling censored by a list of required warnings. It’s a balancing act. I will continue listening and if I see the readers are consistently asking for more warnings up front, then yes, I’m willing to change with the times.

What are your thoughts on trigger warnings?


8 comments to “Trigger Warnings”

  1. B.E. Sanderson
    March 24th, 2021 at 5:06 am · Link

    It’s tough. Trigger warnings irritate me personally, so if a book has one I don’t read it – regardless of what the warning is actually for. But that’s me. I get the feeling sometimes that rather than warning people away they’re virtue signalling and actually trying to boost sales that way.

    I would hope anyone who might be triggered by stuff in my books can glean that from the blurb. Fertile Ground, for instance, is about the hunt for a serial rapist. I don’t actually portray any rapes in it. They’re hinted at. I show the aftereffects. The main character is a rape survivor who overcomes her fears and goes after the bad guy. I like to think it’s cathartic. As I think your Savaged books can be cathartic for people who may have gone through some of the things Liza and Justice have gone through.

    Like I said, it’s tough. How much advance notice should a writer give? And like you said, how could we possibly know what out of a myriad of possibilities might trigger someone? There are no trigger warnings on my books, and there won’t be. Unless at some point, the seller decides to put one on them for me. =o\

  2. Silver James
    March 24th, 2021 at 8:33 am · Link

    Grrrr! I was about 1/3 of the way through my comment when RL happened and when I got back to it, I clicked the delet tab instead of open tab. 🤦🏼‍♀️ Ok. To recap…

    Trigger warnings labeled as trigger warnings irratate me. Readers should be smart enough to glean what might happen in a book by the genre. Books about outlaw MCs and mafia bad guys? Yeah…dark and dirty. Special operators/military? People are gonna die. Paranormal/shifters? Pretty obvious from the blurb but I still get 1 and 2 star reviews like “OMG! I NEVER read shifter books! How dare this author include one in her book!!!” I’m serious.

    Authors should be upfront about their content. But readers should also be smart enough to figure out what a book is about. Granted, some blurbs are so poorly written that a reader might have no clue until they’re well into the book.

    What worries me about this whole “woke” generation is the idea of “victimhood.” EVERYONE is a victim. “I’m [fill in the blank with a label re: color, gender, ethnicity, religion, whatever] so I’m a victim and I demand everyone do what I want.” Why would anyone WANT to be a victim? Stand up for yourself. Go against the stereotype instead of feeding it. If there’s trauma, get help–PT for physical, counseling for emotional. Don’t wallow in the self-pity and demand that everyone be cognizant of your special snowflake feelings. We are NOT mindreaders.

    Sorry. Climbing off my soapbox now. I guess my failing as an author is expecting my readers to be smart enough to figure out what’s what, to be aware enough of what goes in in certain types of books to stay away from them if that’s not their catnip.

    You make some excellent points, Jen, and presented lots to think about. I still won’t go much beyond the variations of the last paragraphs of my Nightrider blurbs: Warning: Lots of down and dirty sex, violence of the blood and guts kind, alpha MC members, and a moonstruck Wolf who should be careful what he wishes for. This is the dark side of the Moonstruck world where sex is rough, death is brutal, and laws don’t mean jack. And by this new “sensitivity,” why aren’t they using their cancel culture on VC Andrews’s books? No trigger warnings there and dude! Incest? Didn’t see that coming! Oh, and speaking of, yeah, there’s no trigger warnings on George RR Martin’s books either. Ah well.

  3. Cori
    March 24th, 2021 at 9:28 am · Link

    Your books don’t need a trigger warning. I like to know if there are going to be rape scenes or child molestation in romances. I wouldn’t read it if I thought something like that was coming up. I do find it “triggering”. I hate that word but it I guess that’s the best way to describe it if you have any kind of trauma. I wouldn’t blame the author for not warning me but I have seen a lot of descriptions with them now and I don’t think they’re spoilers. I stay away from books with them.
    Your books were not a problem for me. You empower your female characters that deal with assault. You do not describe any type of rape scene in your books where you go in to detail of the actual act. Some authors make it into a romantic act. The really dark erotica etc. I think that’s the difference. Feel free to message me:)

  4. Viki S.
    March 24th, 2021 at 3:06 pm · Link

    I honestly have never even thought about trigger warnings. I feel as a reader you kind of know what you’re getting into when you decide to read the book. It’s our job to research (read the back) and decide if we want to give it a go.
    Yes, a book may have some content you were not prepared for, but that is the reader’s issue not the author. The author has a large mass of readers from all over the spectrum and shouldn’t be expected to pat all of us on the head. Sorry if that sounds mean but if we’re reading books that have “triggers” we’re adults and need to pull up our big boy pants.

    Now – I hope you are having a great day. It’s 72F and sunny here. In the morning it’s been cold (30’s) and our furnace has decided to act up. Unfortunately our guy is off right now. So we’ll just have to wrap up in a blanket now and then until he gets here next week ;).

    Take care!

  5. Jenn
    March 24th, 2021 at 5:47 pm · Link

    B.E., thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hadn’t considered virtue signaling because I wrote this piece with the one person who was truly upset there wasn’t a trigger warning. But it’s entirely possible that’s a motivation. I know authors who don’t want to become Twitter Targets too.

    I think you market your books honestly, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Your blurbs give a sense of your books. One of my absolute favorite storylines is when the MC overcomes past trauma, and despite her fears, finds a way to fight back and triumphs in the way that is important to her. So your books work for me :-)

    I agree, how can we know what will trigger someone? If it’s obvious to me that I’ve written a book with more sexual content or violence, I’d put it at the bottom of my blurb as an italicized note. But to me, that feels more like information than a trigger warning.

  6. Jenn
    March 24th, 2021 at 6:01 pm · Link

    Silver, I HATE when I wrote a long comment and lose it! Thank you for taking the extra time to restate it. This is a good conversation, and I’m enjoying hearing everyone’s POV.

    I agree, if a reader picks up an MC book and thinks it’s a soft romance where the most tragic thing that happens in life is getting stood up on a date, the reader isn’t paying attention. And your covers do a good job of indicating a paranormal.

    We could have a long discussion about victimhood as an identity. I bet my soap box is bigger than yours, LOL! This isn’t to ever discount what it’s like to live through a trauma. It’s terrible, and it takes time and work to heal our brains back into a reasonable functional version of ourselves. I try very hard to treat that respectfully as I’ve dealt with my own crap as most people do. My characters are often victims, but at a certain point, they move past allowing the trauma to completely define them. Your characters do the same.

    I’ve seen your warnings in your blurbs–they just make me want to read your books more, LOL! But they also warn softer readers that the book might not be what they’re looking for.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  7. Jenn
    March 24th, 2021 at 6:10 pm · Link

    Cori, thank you so much! Your response is so helpful.

    The authors I know don’t want to draw readers into something they aren’t in a place to handle. I know for sure a lot of readers do not want to read about rape or child molestation, and I respect that.

    I hear you on making rape romantic. I have seen warnings for BDSM where it’s consent to bondage type of force, and they are very clear. That makes sense to warn readers, and I can see where that would be triggering.

    Thank you so much on my books. I clearly struggled as I wanted to show the heroine taking back her power, but to do that, I had to give the reader a good sense of her struggle. I appreciate that you felt I managed that without crossing a line for you.

    I will definitely message you if I struggle with that question again :-) Thanks so much!

  8. Jenn
    March 24th, 2021 at 6:17 pm · Link

    Viki, thanks so much for sharing your take in trigger warnings. I’ve always been conscious of not deceiving readers. But not every plot twist or surprise is going to work for every reader.

    I’ve been surprised by what does upset readers. I had one review upset about the heroine’s name being “Becky” as she felt it made her should like a child. How would I put a trigger warning on that, LOL?

    But you know, most readers really are wonderful. When they don’t like a book, they find other authors they do like and move on with their lives.

    You don’t sound mean, just realistic. Movies sometimes take a turn that I hate or make me uncomfortable, and I still manage to keep going with my life.

    Oh my gosh, that’s awfully cold for you guys to have no heat. As for me, all is fine, but it’s been a run-around day and I can’t seem to catch up.

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