That’s a pretty good question, one I’m seeing more and more now, so what’s the answer?
Quite simple: you don’t.
I hate to burst anyone’s bubble of being all inclusive and not offending anyone but it’s simply impossible. No matter what you write, there is bound to be someone out there who will take offence to it, it simply can’t be helped.
People get offended because something you said or wrote goes against what they personally believe or hold dear and you, as a writer, have no way of knowing what someone might get offended by.
The real question is though: would we want to read books that don’t offend anyone? I mean, wouldn’t it be pretty boring in the end?
I’m probably pretty biased in this regard as my main genres I read are dark fantasy and horror, and particularly dark fantasy have a lot of grim realism and disturbing things going on.
In there you will find rape, incest (sometimes combined), torture, violence against women, violence against kids, lots of violence in general. It’s just part of that particular genre and, sadly, part of life, which books reflect.
So what do you do when you read something that offends you? Well, you could of course just stop reading, that’s the easy solution, or you could ask yourself: was it intended by the author that I should be offended?
Some time ago I read a novel where a father forces himself on his daughter, a horrible scene and most who read that would probably be disturbed and even offended by it, which is a good thing! You’re supposed to! You’re supposed to despise the father.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind about all of this, is that generally, people don’t cause offence, they take offence; they GET offended.
You shouldn’t censure yourself as a writer because someone might take offence to what you write, if they do, then their writing simply isn’t for them and if you try to pander to everyone, you’ll just end up with a bland mess that’s nothing like your original vision.
Lastly, I’d like to talk a bit about what inspired this post.
I was on Goodreads, looking at reviews for a book that’s been highly recommended, Godblind, a Grimdark fantasy novel by Anna Stephens.
One of the reviews were labelled “don’t read” with the review stating that it was filled with rape and violence against women and furthermore added that it was a “trope” within the grimdark subgenre and a failed attempt at “trying to be artistic.”
And it’s true, grimdark stories often do contain rape and lots of violence, because those are horrible things and the worlds in which grimdark stories are set, are often bleak and horrible. That’s why it’s called “grimdark”…because it’s grim and dark.
Now, of course, the reviewer is entitled to her opinion, there’s no question there, but just because there’s something in the story that disturbs her, doesn’t mean it deserves a “don’t read” label and certainly not the reviewer’s condemnation of the author and her work. It’s simply a matter of “it was too disturbing/dark for me,” which is a fair thing to say, heck, even I have encountered things that were too disturbing for me to watch (I still have nightmares about Teletubbies).
In the end, the important thing when writing is that you write for YOU, that you write what you want to write and what you want to read and that you get YOUR story out there.