The song “Die Vampire, Die” from the musical [title of show] (yes, that’s the name) describes “the air freshener vampire,” and it’s terrifyingly accurate:
She might look like your mama, or your old fat-ass, fat aunt Fanny.
If she smells something unpleasant in what you’re creating,
she’ll urge you to (spraying sound) it with some pine-fresh smell ’em ups.
The air freshener vampire doesn’t want you to write about
bad language, blood, or blowjobs.
She wants you to clean it up and clean it out,
Which will leave your work toothless, gutless, and crotchless
but you’ll be left with two tight paragraphs
on kittens that your grandma would be so proud of.
You look at that air freshener vampire in her fat-ass, fat old face and you say,
“Morte, Vampir, Morte”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a character that doesn’t swear, or a story without sex scenes or gore -- as long as it’s written well and it’s realistic.
But ain’t that the catch?
Sometimes in the effort to make something “clean,” authors scrape the life out of their story.
Arguably, this happens almost every time, especially in the Christian Fiction genre. In their effort to stay clean, many “clean Christian books” refuse to acknowledge the facets of life and people that don’t fall into what they’ve determined is Good or Permissible.
Back in the day, I worked as an editor for a publisher that specialized in “clean reads” —no profanity, no hot-and-heavy scenes, no gore, no “life of sin” without on-page consequences. These weren’t guidelines; they were requirements. Sigh. The publisher meant well, but the stories she published often lacked that special something. The characters didn’t feel real, and those “air freshener vampire” rules were a big part of that.
So you can clean your story up if you like, but you have to ask yourself: are you taking these things out to make an Air Freshener Vampire happy or to make your story better?
If you decide to leave in the swears, sex, and/or suffering for the sake of your writing… congratulations. You’re officially part of the “My Family Won’t Like This” club. It’s a blast here.
So how do you approach the things your family will probably deem “inappropriate”?
I have four options for you.
Hope it never comes up.
Tell them beforehand.
Let them figure it out for themselves.
Include a content warning at the beginning of the story.
Solution A: Hope they won’t touch your story with a 10-foot pole.
This option is, um, idealistic at best. But hey, you do you.
Solution B: Tell them up front if they express an interest in reading your story.
Basically, you’re providing them a personal “content warning” advisory.
This can be tough if you don't like confrontation (which is most of us, isn't it?). Try texting over face-to-face heads-up.
You might text them, “Hey, just so you know, in case you decide to read it, my book has some [whatever they might not like].”
Solution C: Don’t address it at all.
This is a variant of Solution A, except it accepts that they probably will read the book.
They’re adults, and you’re an adult. You can accept that this stuff is part of writing real life and just not say anything.
This can be tough because of the uncertainty. You might have some niggling worry that they’ll be surprised by it AND offended. Still, we’re all grownups here. Any other books they read use the same method.
Solution D: Include a content warning section at the beginning of your book.
This is my favorite possible solution, and here’s why.
I actually think this is a great thing to do overall for your readers. I could go on forever on what a blessing it is.
For example, I deal with an anxiety disorder. When I picked up Heart and Seoul by Erin Kinsella, she had a content warning on the first page that this book included characters with anxiety issues, including panic attacks. This was awesome for two reasons. A) It made me feel special—people like me were being represented as main characters (and love interests). But also B) it let me know that I should mentally prepare myself for potentially triggering content. If my mental health had been worse at the time, it would also give me the chance to put the book down rather than accidentally triggering an anxiety attack of my own.
In this particular case, you’re warning readers that there’s bad language and/or blood and/or blowjobs in the story—and those readers may include your conservative relatives.
This gives them the opportunity to put down your book if that content is a dealbreaker for them. It also lets them prepare themselves to see it when it comes up. No surprises.
What do you do if your family confronts you about your Unclean™ content?
It comes down to what we said before: A) it’s part of real life and B) we’re all adults here.
And if it comes down to it… you’re gonna have to put your foot down.
“I’m writing real life.” “It’s an adult story.” “I included a content warning specifically so people don’t have to read that stuff if they don’t want to.” (See how handy that came in?)
And the conversation killer: “I’m done talking about this.” Oof.
Be polite and as understanding as you can be. Most of the time, the person feels like they’re looking out for you or for The Good Of The People. There's no use in alienating them just because you have different perspectives on literature.
Many authors deal with family members who prefer a cleaner story than the one you’re writing. You’re not alone.
Here are your options:
Hope they don’t read it.
Tell them up front if they express an interest in reading your story.
Don’t address the potential Problem Content. Let them figure it out for themselves.
Include a content warning at the beginning of the book.
Content warnings are excellent because they provide all readers with the benefit of knowing what they're getting into.
Remember, if you’re writing a story about real life, there will be some air freshener vampires who are upset about it. It’s the nature of the beast. Stick to your guns. The quality of your story is worth more than someone criticizing its cleanliness (or lack thereof).
Now go forth and write your dirty, dirty story.
I believe in you!