What’s Appropriate to Include in Your Fiction Writing?

Some writers you may have the ability to let ‘er rip and say whatever you darn well please. Or maybe you question your conscience about whether certain things are appropriate to include in your fiction writing, or not. Things that might be sensitive include:

  • Violence
  • content of a sexual nature
  • vulgar language
  • biographical information which could harm the reputation or sensibilities of another living (or dead) person
  • anything else that the particular writer is afraid to share authentically


Sometimes it all comes down to the genre. There are certain genres where taboo topics and anything graphic is a strict no-no. For example, the first 3 items on this list of questionable content are off limits in children’s books and cozy mysteries (among other genres). When genre dictates what can and can’t be included in the content, it has nothing to do with being authentic. These are guidelines, rules which must be followed. Readers have certain expectations when it comes to the genre they read. For example, you would never put a sex scene in a Christian romance. In the Christian romance genre, kissing is fine. However, sex and swearing will completely turn a Christian romance audience off.

Knowing what’s appropriate to include in your fiction writing isn’t always easy…

What if your genre doesn’t answer the question about whether or not something is appropriate in your fiction writing? It can be tricky to face decisions about what to include in your writing, whether they are blog posts or novels, especially when the rules aren’t well defined. Most of the time, you will naturally follow a set of criteria that you are comfortable with. There are times, though, when those self-imposed rules get in the way of telling your story or the characters’ stories.

…and not everyone will like it.

As I was working on a mystery novel, I had a couple of family members read what I had so far. My husband didn’t like what I did with a particular scene. It involved several teenagers in a high school parking lot at the end of the day. One big guy spit on the shoe of a bi-racial girl. The girl’s love interest was horrified. “Asshole!” he shouted at the guy who was twice his size.

This really bothered my husband. He didn’t feel I should use this word in the book because it’s vulgar. I contemplated several points.

  • Is it genuine to the characters (or to you if it is autobiographical)? For example, is this how your character talks?
  • Is it there with a purpose (not simply to get a rise out of readers)?
  • Does it fit the genre (Some genres do not under any circumstances allow curse words)?

Considering these points, you can usually make a sensible decision about whether or not sensitive topics, words, or events are appropriate to include in your fiction writing. For this scene and the question of the dialogue, I felt confident that this is authentic dialogue for a high school boy coming to the defense of the girl he has a crush on. This is especially the case in my book where the high school boy in question is no choir boy. It is the only curse word I included in the book, so I felt my readers would forgive me. The genre is mystery (not cozy). The swear word stayed. Even though it makes me cringe, it is authentic.

What's Appropriate to Include in Your Fiction Writing

Gut Check

When deciding whether something is appropriate to include in your fiction writing, first consult your gut and then question whether or not your gut is right. Are you the sort of person who worries more about what other people say than what the impact will be on what you are writing? If so, those sensibilities might be overriding what your writing needs.

Have you ever read something and been appalled and in awe at the same time? You wonder how the writer had the guts to be that honest and true to the story. And you realize it’s that honesty that makes it so brilliant. Authenticity is a rare thing. We crave it because in this world of airbrushed bodies and fake smiles, we need something real. We are tired of the “How are you doing? Fine,” relationships and we want to know the deeper parts of the people in our lives and the characters in the stories we read.

It’s not about shock value

Shock value isn’t any more authentic than the mundane falsehoods we are trying to avoid in our writing. Shock should never be the goal. The goal is to be true to the story and the characters. SO, when you ask yourself whether something is appropriate to include in your fiction writing, use that authenticity as your yardstick.

I have spent a good amount of time worrying about whether or not something I write will offend someone. I’m embarrassed by that. As a writer, I should be more independent in my thinking. This look at authenticity is an effort to break out of that pattern of thinking.

What about you?

Do you worry about offending people?  Are you confident when it comes to deciding what’s appropriate to include in your fiction writing? Tell me in the comments.

What Are YOUR Thoughts?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!

About Heather Erickson

My Family
The Erickson Family, Photo by Everbranch Photography

I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace. My books are available at Amazon.com:

The Memory Maker’s Journal 

Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer

Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer

I also blog about living with cancer at Facing Cancer with Grace.

Have any questions or comments? I would love to hear from you! By commenting, you agree to the terms of my privacy policy.

6 comments on “What’s Appropriate to Include in Your Fiction Writing?

Good topic, Heather. I’m glad there are genres like cozy and Christian so those who wish to (like me) can avoid violence/sex/etc. I know my latest book–Born in a Treacherous Time–bothered several readers in my critique group because it is violent at times. My characters aren’t but the times are. They wouldn’t read it and that was fine. I left the scenes in because they fit.

Hi Jacqui, I’m glad, too. It’s nice to read a book that doesn’t make you feel dirty turning the pages. That’s why it was so hard to stick to my guns about the swear in my example. I don’t want to offend my audience, which is broadly a Christian one. This book is a different genre, though. I’ve read some wonderful mainstream novels that have kept everything G-rated. It can certainly be done. Have a wonderful week! I’m putting up the link to Born in a Treacherous Time so people can check it out. 🙂

I remember when my children were younger they read something I wrote and looked at me with shocked faces, “Mommy swore!!!” My answer, “I didn’t swear, my characters did!” I agree with you. There are words I wouldn’t use because they are not true to my character. I’ve wrestled with this and come to the same conclusion, my characters need to be true to who they are.

Hi Nancy. You were raising your kids right if they were surprised in that way. If we have bad guys in our books that steal and lie, they won’t censor their language. Thankfully, we can at least tame it down a bit while still keeping them authentic. Bless you, Nancy!

All the character said was “asshole”? That’s tame for high school students. I frequently am policing their language (and explaining why they should be more careful with what they say).

I don’t like violence, so I’ll avoid reading those kinds of stories, but if it fits… It’s all about what’s necessary for the story.

Hi Liz, Yes, tame for high school students, but not for my husband. It’s hard feeling like I will disappoint him and some of my other readers by including it, but my writer overruled his sensitivities. I have to keep my characters authentic. 🙂

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