Dear Christian Novelists: Cleanness Is Not Next to Godliness

October 15, 2018

“Is he quite safe?”


“Safe? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”


Mr. Beaver’s statement about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe upends Lucy’s assumption that danger and goodness are incongruous. By extension, it challenges our perception of God and wise living—including the stories we feel safe writing.


We may not talk about “safe fiction” in Christian writing circles, but we have a similar concept: clean fiction. Many writers struggle to discern what classifies as clean. How far can we go without dirtying our stories? Where should we draw lines, and how can we avoid laying stumbling blocks for readers?


Clean fiction has a purpose, especially if the target audience expects it. Our submission standards here at Story Embers would be considered clean by most people. Yet I’m struck by how cleanness often becomes a moral imperative in the Christian writing field.


If all Christian fiction is clean, I’d contend that we’ve lost something.


What Is a Clean Story?

Before tackling this topic, I need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Unsurprisingly, clean fiction is difficult to define. CleanIndieReads.com mandates “no erotica or sexually explicit content… minimal offensive language… [and] no graphic violence or gore.” Fair enough. ThriftyandThriving.com, however, takes an alternate stance: “books [that] are not filled with swear words or sexual situations.” Some places use a simpler rubric, prohibiting language, pervasive darkness, extreme violence, and sex.


To understand the meaning of this term, however, we need to examine practice as well as theory. Although sites like PluggedIn and VidAngel offer helpful services, they sometimes label bizarre elements as negative. PluggedIn warns moviegoers that characters lie in The Avengers. VidAngel allows parents to bleep nineteen “crude words” in Toy Story (unless you flinch at “stupid,” none of these are actually offensive).


Certain genres also have checkpoints to abide by. Copyeditor Libby Sternberg describes some of the guidelines for inspirational fiction at a major publishing house: “I’ve had to refer to the guidelines to double-check if, say, it’s okay for the hero to say ‘for Pete’s sake’ (nope) or ‘jeez’ (nope) or can he play cards (nope) or drink (of course not)… No reference to Halloween, either.” As Sternberg mentions in her article, Christian fiction in practice often follows the same restrictions.


Clean fiction is hard (impossible?) to define because people interpret cleanness differently. When we assess a book or movie as clean, we’re usually saying we’re comfortable with its content, and everyone has different levels of comfortability. For one person, any language at all is intolerable; for another, mild language is fine but harsher language is not. Hence, VidAngel lists “uncultured swine” as a phrase parents may want to bleep because they’re uncomfortable with their children hearing it.


While individual definitions vary, I would argue that a thread connects them all, and we can discover it by asking, “Clean from what?” Now, hopefully, that similarity becomes obvious:


Clean fiction does not contain acts or words that might bother readers.


Clean by What Standard?

The above definition raises two questions: What acts or words bother readers? And, more importantly, is making readers uncomfortable wrong?


It certainly can be. But look at Scripture. Witches performed necromancy on dead prophets, Babylonian generals boasted that the besieged would drink their own urine, daughters conspired to get impregnated by their fathers, prophets wandered the streets naked—and that doesn’t even touch the last five chapters of Judges, which chronicle some of the darkest situations I’ve encountered in ancient literature, the lives of Roman emperors excepted.


Scripture doesn’t seem to prioritize readers’ comfort, nor are its passages clean by modern Christian criteria. Instead, we often draw stricter lines around what’s acceptable to write about. After all, how many Christians would sanction poetry celebrating erotic love (Song of Solomon)? Or how many Christian writers would unabashedly describe feces spilling out of a dead king’s body (Judges 3)? Scripture contains dozens of scenes that Christians would probably hesitate to approve in another context.


Why do we censor fiction more than Scripture?


Because many of us (myself included) like the idea of a sanitized reality.


We see fiction as an escape and don’t want to show a grisly world in our storytelling. We fear that depicting vileness may imply vileness in ourselves. And we believe that sanitizing our stories helps us maintain purified souls.


But is this the standard Scripture follows? Scripture tells us that the world we live in is corrupt, yet it also states that we can’t remove ourselves from the world. This is no less true in storytelling. We are not to condone or engage in activity that Scripture forbids, but depiction does not equal endorsement. We delude ourselves and readers when we equate cleanness with godliness and offer that as the only option in Christian fiction.


We Can’t Purge Life’s Impurities

In our Christian Storytellers Manifesto, we call Christian writers to affirm that we have the freedom “to portray the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity.” The general wording of this clause was first proposed by former staff members Sierra, Christi, and MacKenzie at our 2018 summer retreat, and when I heard it, I paused to consider the connotations.


Are writers commissioned to portray the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity? Because that means everything in the real world has a place in fiction. Everything.


I realized I had to agree. As human beings, we need to understand reality’s ugliness and splendor from both a rational perspective (through principle) and an emotional perspective (through story). We don’t get a pass. To deepen our grasp of the full human experience, we need stories that display it.


No topic is therefore outside the bounds of storytelling.


Since parts of the human experience are tainted, some—if not many—stories will need to depict details that are less than clean. We can’t omit facets of reality from Christian fiction if we intend to fulfill our obligation to be truthtellers. Readers need the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.


How to Depict Unclean Things

Although we’re free to portray all of reality because readers need authentic stories, we have a responsibility to do so appropriately. The fact that people swear does not license us to pack our books with the worst curse words we can find.


Neither is every storyteller equipped to address tricky subjects. Some authors may be unable to handle certain subjects without falling into sin due to individual weaknesses. Not only that, but one writer can’t encapsulate all of reality in a single book. I’m not insisting that all storytellers depict these subjects, but that we shouldn’t reject them as taboo in Christian storytelling.


When we undertake this charge, though, we may be unsure how to wisely navigate tricky subjects. Romans 14 reminds us not to violate our consciences. But how do we properly calibrate our consciences to begin with?


Talking with other Christian storytellers has been invaluable as I’ve formulated my own views. At the 2018 Story Embers staff retreat, we set aside a whole evening to discuss tricky subjects on a hike. None of us knew each other’s views beforehand, but wrestling through tough issues with other strong, thoughtful Christian writers was immensely helpful and encouraging.


We emerged from the conversation with a desire to provide our audience at Story Embers with the same opportunity.


So, over the next month, we’ll be publishing articles on how to discreetly depict four different tricky subjects in Christian fiction. Many of these articles draw from the conclusions we arrived at during the retreat. A different staff member will write each one, and in a designated section at the end of the posts, other staff members will share their thoughts. We hope these explorations will spark a healthy, vibrant discussion in the comments. Our goal is to give you various perspectives to evaluate alongside Scripture so you can articulate your own position and determine how to approach these topics.


Here are the four upcoming articles:


Cleanness and Godliness

Cleanness is a complicated concept to define in storytelling. But I don’t believe Christians should focus on writing clean fiction exclusively. As Mr. Beaver pointed out, safety and goodness don’t always go hand in hand. Instead, we should aim to write fiction that showcases the full human experience in an honest yet appropriate fashion.


In Philippians 4:8, Paul exhorts us to meditate on the true, the good, and the beautiful. But we err if we interpret this to mean we should shun the false, the evil, and the hideous. After all, Paul began his epistle to the Romans by explicating man’s monstrosities. Rather, I’d posit that he’s urging us to contemplate the nature of the ideal reality whether we are looking upon beauty or depravity.


As fiction writers, we help readers to meditate on the true, the good, and the beautiful not by avoiding depictions of evil but by crafting our stories so that readers glimpse the beatific reality beyond the shadows.


Fiction writing is a dangerous business. Portraying the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity is no small task. Nor is it necessarily a clean one. But when we use the contrast between light and darkness to reveal people’s need for salvation and God’s goodness in a broken and vicious world, our stories have power.


Tune in next week as Hope tackles writing about darkness. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you feel called to do as a writer, and how do you grapple with cleanness in fiction? Share your perspective in the comments!


  1. Kate Lamb

    Wow. Great article and I’m so looking forward to the rest.

    As my tastes in reading material have developed over the years, I’ve noticed a decided bent towards stories some would call ‘raw’. Some of the stories that have impacted me most are ones I’d have to think twice about letting some of my siblings read. In fiction, stories like Lord of the Flies and Crime and Punishment, and in nonfiction stories of war— The Hiding Place, Night, We Were Soldiers Once, Unbroken, etc. Something about their jarring truthfulness draws me. It all seems so much more real.

    This past year I’ve really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what my specific mission as a writer is, especially in relation to darkness. One thing I’ve always been intrigued by and passionate about is history— and man’s constant tendency to forget. Out of that passion and a heartache for people who go about their day to day lives with their eyes down, not even realizing what they’re missing, my writing mission sort of shaped itself. I want to give the world back a picture of itself— but a little clearer, a little more honest, and a little wiser. To say ‘Yes, here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.’ To acknowledge what is, I suppose, but at the same time remind them what could be. A sort of magnifying glass. 😉

    Thanks again for the article. Really great stuff.

    • Samantha Farrar

      Thanks so much… I feel exactly the same way about history

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Kate! I love that perspective on writing. It’s a rather biblical one, too, when you look at how often the Israelites were told to “remember” their past in the Old Testament and given very tangible signs and customs to help them do so. (And of course, they still struggled to remember even with all of that!) Jarring truthfulness has a great power, and many of my favorite stories possess that as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • MoonInk

      Yes. And light has more impact in the darkness. Hence, one needs darkness in one’s story to emphasize the light.

  2. Hannah

    Wow.. My brain is doing funny things after reading that.
    This is an awesome article.
    Something I was thinking about as I was reading was; the Bible was inspired by God and is true, not fiction. There is my difficulty.
    Because it is fiction we have to make up characters, and situations that go against our morals and beliefs, even if we condone their actions and the situations. I think for the Christian mind it’s easy to make it to little or to much.
    I personally don’t think violence, swearing, darkness, and sex [this is really tricky esp. for single authors to address] are bad to include in fiction. I’ve read to many squeeky clean novels and it was irritating. And then I’ve read novels that were to much.
    And since the spiritual world is more real than the physical we have a duty to address it but exactly how I’m at a loss. I’m excited for the upcoming articles and can’t even begin to address my gratitude to you for writing this!
    Thank you so much! 😊

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yeah. Well, I think you’re hitting on the right questions we need to wrestle through as writers. Because God designed a world where terrible things happen without being responsible for those actions, I believe it’s possible to invent terrible things in our stories without sinning, but you’re definitely right that we can take this too far and we need to strike a godly balance. We planned this series hoping it would help writers who don’t know how to navigate these issues yet, so whether you agree with everything we say in this series or not, I definitely hope it helps you achieve clarity. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Anne of Lothlorien

    Wow. Thank you, Josiah, for putting these out, and for not being abashed at the topics selected. It is hard to talk about that stuff, and I’ve always been blessed knowing people who are honest and unafraid to talk about it. Can’t wait to read these upcoming articles.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Anne! Yeah, when we first started discussing these subjects as a team (before this series was even planned), I had no idea how well it would go, but I was really blessed by the discussions we were able to have and am glad to have the opportunity to share some of our thoughts on these issues here. 🙂

  4. Martin Detwiler

    I really appreciate that this difficult aspect of writing is being frankly, honestly, and scripturally discussed. This was an excellent article that laid down a really solid foundation for the future articles in this series. I look forward to reading them.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Martin. Those were definitely our goals in how we wanted to present these topics, so I’m glad it had that effect. 🙂

  5. Bethany

    Amazing timing, this series is addressing things I’ve been thinking about in my own writing! Thank you for this!!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Bethany! I’m glad that this series is coming at a timely time for you. 🙂

  6. Hans Erdman

    Wow. I’m sunk. My books have marriage between humans and elves, mention of underwear (Bras, specifically. Elves don’t wear them. They do, however, wear corsets.) violence, (The entire Gewellyn Chronicles series is about the battle between good and evil.), sexual/nudity references (Not described, but the married couples -only- have “fun” with each other, and elves and their human counterparts are chronic skinny dippers.), and copious references to Catholics. I mean, part of the tales take place in ancient Ireland. Padraigh (Patrick) is a secondary main character, and Mother Bridget (Brigid) raised Queen Fiona from infancy at Kildare Abbey. The faith of the Blessed Colum Cille (St. Columba of Iona, pre-Roman Celtic Christianity) is key to the entire story. I guess I don’t dare call it “Christian Fantasy.”
    Thanks for an excellent article, and I am looking forward to the next installment.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yeah. There’s a whole other conversation to be had about the Christian publishing market these days since these “rules” are largely place due to reader wants and it’s hard to find an audience if readers don’t always want this kind of thing (for better or for worse). Glad you enjoyed the article!

  7. GraceAnna

    I really really like this. And it’s so true. People need to know the stark contrast between the devil and the Lord and sometimes that even means writing things we’re very uncomfortable writing. But it showcases how amazing God is and how different he is from our world. So thank for this encouragement and knowledge I will be using this soon!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      It’s a strange yet powerful thing to realize that understanding darkness in appropriate ways can actually help us understand the light more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. Victoria Marentette

    It is difficult to write darkness. I am thinking about Charles Dickens as I read all this. His books are really good, and I find that they capture a lot . As a writer though, it is sometimes difficult to make it real, even though it may be fiction. I know when I see movies sometimes I say to my parents or siblings, “It’s a movie.” It’s not real. But we should make our fiction real and true.
    Thanks so much for this article. I can’t wait to read the rest!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yeah–these subjects definitely aren’t easy to handle as Christian storytellers, which is one of the reasons I think we may sometimes avoid them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Glad to hear that you’re looking forward to this series. 🙂

  9. Kelly Lundgren


    I don’t completely agree. Mostly because I believe there are things that actually shouldn’t be talked about in public or publicly available works. Sex is one of them. There’s some things that need to stay private.

    • The Golden Light

      Yeah, Kelly. I am interested to see the next articles because it makes sense to me that we need to show the world how it is (because otherwise it would be fake) but I agree with you that there are some things that should NOT be shown. 🙂 (Unless I guess, if it is the theme/topic/focus of the specific book). So I don’t really know. *shrugs*

    • R.M. Archer

      To some extent I think this depends on whether it’s really *shown* or simply hinted, possibly even led up to depending on how graphically it’s portrayed. I agree that sex should not be shown graphically or specifically, but I don’t think it should necessarily be avoided, either. It can be handled in a way that is respectful and “clean.”

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kelly! One of the things we want to encourage in these discussions is a freedom in sharing dissenting opinions, since that’s the grounds for robust conversations, so I appreciate hearing your perspective on this. 🙂

      I believe I understand where you’re coming from, and certainly respect that position since I know several people who believe that as well. The last post in the series will be explaining my reasoning about depicting sex more. One of the things I think about is the fact that the Bible chooses to tackle it head-on in the Song of Solomon. It’s always described in a tactful and appropriate way, but it is poetically described, and I believe that gives human storytellers the ability to do the same, though we have to be exceptionally careful with how we do that. (I don’t believe it’s wise to graphically describe the act of sex, for example. There are better approaches to this that are more moral and more aesthetic that the Song of Solomon exemplifies.) So that’s a bit of where we’re coming from in this topic.

      Thanks again for sharing this perspective. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this–especially when we get to our article on sex–since I love being able to hear and interact with alternate views! 🙂

  10. E. Grace

    This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
    Already this article has helped me sort my thoughts better, so thank you! And I’m very excited to read your upcoming articles on these subjects.
    And I totally agree with what you’re saying. The bad things can be hard to read, but they make the message of the story so much stronger… Thanks again!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad to hear you found this helpful! You’re definitely welcome. 🙂

  11. Sam Kowal

    The fact Christians in some cases seem very afraid to examine these topics, yet Scripture often freely addresses them, has been on my mind for some time regarding how they should be studied in fiction. Portraying the world as it is, without brushing over the parts that make us uncomfortable, makes the glory of God stand out all the brighter.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yeah–the Bible’s a really helpful model for what it looks like to do this well. Thanks for sharing!

  12. R.M. Archer

    This is something I’ve been working out my own beliefs on a lot through my current trilogy, which is the most serious story I’ve written. It includes some of these hard topics, and I’ve had to sort out–with the support of other writers and friends–what is appropriate to include and what is the wisest way to handle the things I include.
    I’m looking forward to this series and I look forward to hearing y’all’s views and discussing these topics.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks R.M.! I’ll be looking forward to seeing your perspective on these posts and the conclusions you’ve come through as you’ve been considering these issues. 🙂

  13. C.M. - II Tim. 1:7

    I have a feeling that this series is going to be amazingly insightful and honest. 🙂 I love profound works that are not afraid to tackle the difficult questions we have in life yet still does not include explicit content that are offensive for me to read (one such example would be the current book I’m reading, Xenocide by Orson Scott Card, although it’s not in the Christian fiction genre), and being able to learn how to create profound and compelling stories in a way that is in alignment with my faith would be wonderful.

    Can’t wait!


    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Xenocide is amazing. Speaker for the Dead is my favorite work of speculative fiction, and Xenocide is definitely up there as well for the complicated ethical dilemmas it wrestled through regarding the nature of life. Glad to hear you’re looking forward to the series!

  14. Maddie Morrow

    I am so looking forward to reading this entire series!

  15. Katthewriter

    Thank you Josiah! Great article!
    A book that i’m co-authoring with a writing friend has those kind of issues, where at first i was kind of unsur about writing. But now i’m not, because it is a really powerful story about forgiveness, and God’s power in controlling everything in your life, even the real horrible things, that i think really needs to be written.

    (sorry I haven’t replied back to your email, had a jaw surgery and been recovering, but i’ll try to get back to that soon)

    • Katthewriter

      A writing friend once told me, “the darker, and more broken a character is, when he is mended and better the brighter his light will shine.” And i think it’s really true. Like the story of paul is very powerful of how he went from trying to destroy and kill all christians, to helping and teaching them,and sharing The good news.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Kat! I’m glad to hear you found this helpful. 🙂 I agree with your writing friend!

  16. Katie Hanna

    “Don’t write about Catholics”? I AM Catholic! I guess that lets me right out of the category of ‘clean’ Christian fiction, then 😉 😉

    In all seriousness, I love your article and I’m so looking forward to this series. Because I want to write stories that help lead people to God, I really do–but I DON’T think I can do it by creating a sanitized reality that only lulls readers into a false sense of security.

    Case in point: I’m working on the second draft of a Holocaust novel right now. And if I were to pretend that my characters don’t swear when circumstances get unbearable [which is most of the book, let’s be honest], or that they don’t struggle with PTSD and depression and suicidal tendencies, or that they aren’t often filled with angry bitterness of a particularly dark and ugly kind . . . I’d be lying. And lying, I believe, is wrong.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Yeah; all of the elements on that list are odd in my opinion, but that’s perhaps the most odd out of all of them to me personally. My only guess is that some of these publishers are in really extreme parts of the Bible Belt.

      Glad to hear that you’re looking forward to this series! Our responsibility to be truth tellers is important to being a skilled storyteller and I appreciate your thoughts on that front. 🙂

    • Jessica White

      I had to laugh at that one too, but it exists in Christian publishing. There are Catholic publishers and Protestant publishers. My first series is self-published historical with Catholic/Protestant crossovers. There are conversions both ways. Honestly as long as there is a relationship with Jesus, I don’t understand how the nuances of denomination make a big difference in the publishing world. I think there are slow moves to change this as time goes on, but there is lots of unseen historical bias (the old fear that Catholics will somehow sneak under the radar and subvert Protestant theology) that is still in play but not consciously acknowledged.

      I actually am writing about that history in the 3rd book because the 1920’s KKK had a great deal of influence on Protestant churches across the South and Midwest playing on their fear of Catholicism. It also played into Prohibition because it was thought that Catholic immigrants would stop coming to America and that some like the Irish might even go back to Ireland.

      I long for the day when scripture is upheld and there is no Jew or Gentile (no Catholic or Protestant) but Christ followers. There is a beauty in the diversity of worship around the globe. There are lessons to be learned in seeing God pursued in different ways in different cultures. I’d love for fiction to SHOW that to American audiences.

  17. Julia

    Hi Josiah!

    I’ve been thinking through this a lot. My first draft has a lot of darkness and torture and I was wondering if I needed to back off. To be clear it is coming from a villain and no, I don’t condone what they do and so I’m excited and interested to read what you all are coming up with. Thanks for tackling these heavy subjects.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Julia! Glad to hear that this is coming at an opportune time for you and I hope it helps to give you clarity as you work on your novel. 🙂

  18. Jess Dinning

    Thanks!!! So helpful!!! I’m planning a trilogy to write and I want it to show the darkness of the world and how God’s redeeming love and grace can save us from that, I’m just not sure how to do it. This is great!!!!!!!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Jess!

  19. A. Noah Spotten

    Honestly, I have some… Different views on Song of Solomon.
    I honestly don’t think that even that much head on depiction is acceptable in our works of fiction, because A) it requires us to first think of the situation in that level of detail, which is dangerous to those of us with weaker wills – myself included, actually, – B) it requires the readers – MANY of whom are also weak in spirit – to imagine it in that level of detail, and C) the New Testament (cannot recall the actual passage and reference at the moment) tells us that it is not ‘what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out.’ In other words, description of sexual scenarios – even when poetic instead of graphic – can be sinful of we, the writers.

    That said, I definitely use and appreciate MILD swearing WHEN IT IS IN CHARACTER. If the character’s main flaw is his bad mouth, than most of what he says ought to be only described, not written out for sheer volume. If, on the other hand, there is a character who might curse when startled, she ought to be quoted directly in that moment because it emphasizes a less-known characteristic.
    I primarily write High Fantasy, though, so I have a super cheap way around this that readers actually enjoy: local expletives. The truth is that English just has very vulgar curse-words. They are taken from the very basest aspects of our vocabulary, and they even sound ugly to people who have no idea what they mean, in many cases. So it is very easy to substitute these unintelligent expressions with allusions to the worldbuilding of the given setting, inserting the names, slang terms, or easy descriptions of local or historical features that are considered negative or inconvenient. Brandon Sanderson does this quite masterfully, especially in his Stormlight Archive, where they use “Storm” – an allusion to the very powerful Highstorms that rage consistently across their world – as an expletive in virtually every part of speech (e.g. “Storm it,” “Storm you,” “Storms,” “Storming _____,” “What the Storms?” etc.,). I love this method, personally.

    As for violence and such, I generally just use – and prefer to read – a bit of tact with it. Not EVERY stabbing should be include a description of every bone it misses, every splatter of blood, or every dying groan. There is a much simpler reason for this than the others I’ve talked about: pace. If a character defeats a mugger in an alley or assassinates somebody, it is totally appropriate to write the whole nitty-gritty picture. If a character then proceeds to kill two more people, though, then it is sufficient to tell the readers where they were hit, what with, and how, bringing in more detail if armor or clothing makes the attack feel different or fail. The other thing about this is variety. A super-warrior who can massacre armies makes you run out of unique descriptions pretty fast, so it’s best to say “s/he ended several more lives with her/his knife, twisting at the last moment to slide it into the narrow gap between the shortest soldier’s helm and his visor. It was still such an odd sensation, and the sound of the blade scraping against his plate would have sent chills down her/his spine had s/he been any less experienced with warfare. And if the din of battle had even allowed her/him to hear it.”

    I’m out of time though.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing your detailed thoughts on this, Noah! I’d love to hear more from you as we tackle the subjects in detail in the future posts of this series, especially when we tackle the subject of sex. I do agree with you that conscience is extremely important and one of the things we need to be careful about as Christian storytellers.

      Writing fantasy does make the swearing topic a bit easier to work with; I take a similar approach in the fantasy works I write. Sanderson does a great job of coming up with natural curse words that reveal aspects of the world and convey emotions in that way.

  20. K.M. Small

    Wow. Thank you for this amazing and honest article. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series!
    I think a big consideration when thinking about what to include in your stories and how graphic they should be is your target audience. If you’re writing for adults, then by all means go ahead and include whatever you want (though not to a degree that you’ll entice them to sin). But if you’re writing for the MG or YA market, then I think one should be more careful. YA is the toughest, in my experience. There are some teens who won’t flinch at reading anything, while others will be extremely sensitive to the mildest cuss words or “gritty” scenes. In some writing circles I’m a part of, “clean” stories are ones that are, in a way, gentle regarding all the topics you’re going to be covering here. Calling a book clean is telling the reader, “hey, this won’t be including a lot of those other topics.” I don’t think this is avoiding creating an image of reality because a lot of us can go about our day to day lives without encountering a lot of violence, sex, or cussing, and it’s fine if some people want to read stories without those elements.
    That being said, I agree with what you talked about in the article about avoiding those subjects: we shouldn’t avoid them because they are part of reality, and writers write about reality.
    So yes, I agree with all this, but for a YA or MG author, I’d caution about putting some of these elements in a story (or at least in more than a mild manner). I personally don’t shirk from including violence (after reading The Iliad, I discovered I’m immune to it :P), but I rarely include swear words (makes for choppy dialogue) and only hint at the third element because I don’t wish to expose my readers to too much of that.
    Anyway…this article got me thinking 😉

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Audrey! I agree that the age of the audience is really important for thinking through these issues. That’s probably the most prominent common theme in each of the four articles we’ll be releasing over the next several weeks since I think each of them touches on this point at one part or another. I don’t think I’d recommend putting any of this content in for a MG audience, and some things can work with YA, but I agree that some caution is wise. Like you said, I think it’s good to address these topics, but there’s a value in clean books and I think we need both in the publishing sphere. 🙂 There’s many different facets of life we need to look at and thankfully, not all of them are dark!

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