So, you’ve developed your rhythm and habits, and you’ve finally fallen into a comfortable schedule. You’re even partway through the pounding out of your first draft. But then you come to it. It’s time for a sex scene, perhaps a twisted act of violence, or some recreational drug use without consequences, maybe a tricky rape scene or the implying thereof. But as you “clock in” and begin the session, suddenly you realize: “wait… my mom might read this” or “this actually happened to a friend who was horribly embarrassed by it” or “what will my sister think of this?” or even “my pastor might get ahold of this.”
Here’s the thing: who are you writing this for? Do you wish for your project to stay within a small, tight-knit group of people immediately around you, or do you want to put this out there for the masses? If your aim is for a handful of people you grew up with to pass around a PDF. . . if that’s your target audience. . . then, by all means, concern yourself with how they might react. If, on the other hand, you have bigger fish to fry, then I’m sorry, but your mother, sister, friend and pastor will just have to blush. But please keep one thing in mind, if this is proving to be a hangup to you or if it seems to be hindering your pen in any way: Your sister has seen Game of Thrones. Your pastor was a RoboCop fan in his younger days. Your friend has probably downloaded 4 to 7% of the porn he or she has searched for. The modern world is not exactly a shelter of morality, and neither should your writing have to be.
And it doesn’t have to be a matter of drugs, sex, rape, etc. Your hangup could be something as simple as language. Should your characters cuss? Well, it’s completely up to you to decide, but I urge you to take a listen to the world all around you before you make that decision. If your characters find themselves in an environment conducive to a few choice four-letter words (a bar, a raging party, the dockyards, a drug bust), then something might seem a bit off if you attempt to scale things back for the sake of sparing your Aunt Edna’s ears. The rest of your audience might notice that something is amiss too, as though your characters were written in a vacuum or a convent. And, again, I would be remiss not to say that your Aunt Edna probably wasn’t always the saint you thought she was.
An important thing to remember is that your characters are not you, and your family and friends would be silly to think of them as being so. Yes, they were born of your imagination, and yes, their words and deeds are controlled entirely by your dictation, but only to such an extent as they are avatars, symbols, representative of the demographics of an imagined society which also shapes their demeanor just as much as your own grasp does. If you put them into a world of complete fantasy, then yes, you can mandate that said world tends toward a certain mode of behavior, as squeaky-clean as you want. But if your characters’ surroundings are based on reality, then any effort to write contrary to that reality will come across as artificial, and can be a jarring experience to your readers, even pulling them out of the flow of the text at times.
This having been said, it should also be a matter of your target audience (your real target audience, not your neighborhood church cookout). Are you writing a work of “young adult” fiction? If so, maybe you do want to keep things closer to PG-13, but never lose sight of the environment your characters inhabit. I’m not saying you should set out to get yourself banned from every school library from here to Hoboken, but, on the other hand, you don’t want to ignore the world the modern “tween” is emerging into, either.
My point is simply this: while you are writing, put your immediate circle of social influence out of your mind. . . completely. Write the prose you want to write, or better yet, the prose you would want to read! This is your story, your baby. Especially if it’s your first attempt at published writing: do what you want to do. I leave you, for now, with a couple of quotes from the legendary Bob Dylan.
“Everything passes, everything changes… just do what you think you should do.”
“. . . It is not he or she or it that you belong to.”
And one more quote. . . this one from Laura Dern as Diane in the current season of Twin Peaks: “Fuck you, Gordon.”