How to Write a Banned Book

Are you a diverse writer? Do you have an unpopular opinion? Are some of the scenes in your novel controversial? 

If your answer was “yes” to any of the questions above, you and your novel are on your way to becoming a banned or challenged book.

No! Wait. Don’t you dare flip back to those pages to change anything.

The word “banned,” challenged,” “controversial” “diverse,” and “unpopular” shouldn’t scare you into believing that your words, or you yourself for that matter, are inherently dangerous. On the contrary: the work that you have written, or are striving to write, might be the initial spark that will ignite the flame of change for a brighter, more diverse, and open-minded future.

Mantra: As a writer, you are not writing to avoid controversial topics. You are also not writing to be “part of the crowd” and follow a “trend” in publishing. Your obligation as a banned book writer is to acknowledge the existence of the myriad of people we encounter in this world, and to expose readers to the ugliness that growing up or slaying a dragon can be.

Diverse Content

Each year, the American Library Association promotes Banned Book Week, cautioning readers of the dangers of censorship. Reading, after all, is a freedom and one that is  protected by our Constitution. Given today’s political climate, it is especially hard to ignore the fact that most of the books being challenge or banned contain diverse content.

Keep in mind: diversity doesn’t mean just racial diversity. It also means:

  • LGBTQ+ writers
  • Writers with illness
  • Writers from underrepresented countries
  • Writers with disabilities
  • Writers from marginalized socioeconomic areas

I know a lot of writers dance around the subject of diversity because they are afraid of stirring up controversy, and receiving backlash from opposing communities. However, the key to writing a banned book and writing it well, is to have an unpopular opinion in the first place. As a writer of color, I was afraid of how my Mexican character would be received within my own community. Ultimately, I worried that I was not portraying the “right” kind of Mexican, nor was I “Mexican enough” to write about a Mexican woman. Yet, I realized that not every experience is the same, and the depiction of each character from these communities will vary. And that’s okay! Readers need to see more than one “version” of Mexican; they have the right to read about every kind of Mexican, too. That’s how open-mindedness and critical thinking happen – by exposure to a myriad of experiences and values. However, there is also some belief that being “politically correct” is a form of censorship itself.

Conversely, many authors do not incorporate diversity consciously with the fear of being labeled as “politically correct.” The fear of being “too politically correct” is, however, another term for racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. It means that, as a writer, you simply do not want to be bothered with controversy, and would rather play it safe for the sake of your own reputation. Rather than acknowledging that there are other people in this world, by avoiding being “politically correct,” you are suggesting that one representation from a marginalized community is enough. Thus, this is why more diverse characters are needed so that this idea of “other” is diminished.

Again, I am not suggesting to stereotype your characters, but rather, I am encouraging you to incorporate diversity without making sexuality, gender, race, illness, etc. the central focus of your writing. In other words, you can have a Mexican character, but her motivation and the central conflict itself, doesn’t have to be about her striving to assimilate or find her Mexican heritage. After all, diverse writers and their characters, are more than their struggles.

Below are a few exercises to help you begin incorporating diversity into your work:

Exercises

  • Thumbnail Sketch: Describe a character who is racially or physically different than you. (Avoid comparing their skin color to food items.)
  • Setting: Place your character in a city you are unfamiliar with. Describe their surroundings and how they interact with their environment. (Consider underrepresented countries and socioeconomic status.)
    • Secondary Characters: Who does your character live with? What are their daily interactions with them?

Explicit Content

Unsurprisingly, books are also banned for their explicit content. Explicit content includes:

  • profanities
  • sexual content
  • substance abuse
  • violence

True, while books are perceived to be a form of escapism, by shielding a reader from reality, you are providing nothing more than an abstract illusion. As a banned book writer, you must unveil the harsh, ugly truth about life. We cannot have happy endings all the time, and even those fairytales are accompanied by some greater evil. But not all of life’s “ugliness” is necessarily bad. The incorporation of explicit content lends to authentic, complex, and dynamic characters.

More than anything, you want your characters to feel real. To have a motivation. You want your readers to identify with them, too. You want them to fight with your characters because perhaps they’ve fought this fight their whole life, too.

Here are some exercises to help you get started:

Exercises

  • Dialogue: Your character is distressed about the central conflict and has a heated conversation with someone they trust. Incorporate as many profanities as you can. Go on! Having a fucking blast!
  • Scene: Your character encounters the antagonist on the way home from work. They exchange strained small talk, but eventually something gives way. Let your character beat them up once and for all.
  • Scene: Your character can no longer cope with the weight of it all. The engage in some risky behavior. Will they have sex in an Uber with a stranger? Gamble? Drink? It’s your choice.

Final Thoughts

Writing isn’t about being popular. Writing is a purely human expression that deserves to written by all and for all. It’s exposure and empowerment. It’s vulnerability – revealing the ugly, awkward, sinful. Writing is also about sharing the good, and recognizing the resilient human spirit.

Writing isn’t about being silent. Lend your voice to the conversation. Don’t be afraid to go against status quo. Write change.

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