Exploring Sensitive Topics in Fantasy by Susan Murray (GUEST POST)

Exploring Sensitive Topics in Fantasy

It’s generally accepted that fiction reflects the times in which it’s written, and I believe this is as true of fantasy as any other genre. The fantasy lens may distort that world more than other genres but it is still the place where the author is rooted and elements of it will seep through into the fictional world if the author chooses to let them. Humankind has been using fiction in an attempt to make sense of the world since the earliest people gathered round bonfires. Of course, we can choose to write ripping yarns for sheer escapism, but if we don’t want to continue doing the fictional equivalent of crossing to the other side of the road as a mugging victim bleeds out in the gutter, then we begin to tackle uncomfortable themes.

Perhaps the biggest challenge when incorporating sensitive topics is to avoid cheap sensationalism simply to grab the reader’s attention (q.v. metaphor in previous paragraph). Any scene in a story needs to earn its place by moving the narrative forward in some way, rather than exist purely for shock value. It is important that the impact of a challenging scene be felt by the characters who have witnessed – or even participated in – it, and it should affect their choices as they attempt to move on with their lives. If that scene doesn’t have significant repercussions in some way then its purpose in the story is perhaps questionable – when tackling such topics as authors we’re touching on real suffering, however far removed it may be from our fictional world.

In fiction, a shocking scene can reveal much about individual characters through their reactions – are they disgusted or ashamed? Do they shrug it off as not their problem? Do they wade in to help the victim or notify the authorities? It might prove to be a turning point for a particular character, propelling them down a new path entirely. In a fantasy world the same scene might also highlight cultural differences when compared to our own world, or between characters from different backgrounds in the fictional world. Such challenges to the characters might serve to raise the stakes – perhaps a witness finds themselves pursued by the criminals when they seek to report a crime, or perhaps the forces of law and order in that world are already in the pockets of the criminals. Perhaps there are no reliable law enforcers at all.

Flawed human behaviour of this type can help imbue a fantasy story with a sense that the world is real, grounding the more fantastical developments in something familiar. Most of us know what it’s like to be lied to, or bullied, or disbelieved. We may never have been swindled out of a month’s rent, framed for a crime or sold into slavery, but we can begin to guess how it must feel, extrapolating from our own experiences. Much has been written about historical accuracy bringing a sense of authenticity to fantasy worlds – such and such a thing really happened in the past, therefore it must be convincing in the fictional world. No doubt research can turn up interesting plot possibilities but for my money it’s the humanity (or otherwise) of the characters’ response to these events that brings a fantasy world to life – and the more those events challenge the characters, the more we will learn about them.


About the Author

Susan Murray is a graduate of the Open University, and describes herself as a “serial house renovator”.

She was recently longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize.

Susan can be found online at her blog trackingthechanges.wordpress.com and @pulpthorn on Twitter.


About the Book

Waterborne Exile 
by Susan Murray

In a world of turmoil, following the king’s death, the traitor Vasic is struggling to secure his rule over the combined Peninsular Kingdoms whilst the exiled queen, Alwenna, has taken refuge with freemerchant community whose elders fear her dark power. Mistrust rules the day with bribery, drugs, traffic king of children, and murder rife throughout the kingdom.

As the priestess’ plot for revenge continues, Alenn a leaves to seek the outcast group of loyal kinsman. Marten attempts to restore Alwenna to the throne but as the priestess closes in, will he succeed?


  1. Going for shock value brings nothing to the story. You're right that it has to belong, adding to the character or moving the story forward.


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