Profanity in Writing (among other things)

Yesterday, I said a lot of my poetry was too personal to share. I stand by that, as it involves other people, but here is a beautiful blog post by an author who shared the most personal thing, the scariest thing. She writes this thing incredibly well, and it is absolutely worth a read—and I suspect this blogger is someone worth following. The Scariest Thing on Chalk the Sun

Another interesting thing about yesterday’s post: it didn’t even occur to me until much, much later that I had posted a poem containing a swear word. The third word of the second line, if you didn’t notice. It is the only word that can go there, and I’m not apologizing. I just find it interesting that it didn’t even occur to me that the word might offend certain audiences. It’s not something I even considered, probably because I know the words to this poem so well that they are a part of myself, and how can a part of myself be offensive?

Profanity in writing, however, is something to consider, especially as an aspiring author of Young Adult Literature. At what age level in books is it appropriate to include characters who swear?

We are, as writers, going for realism. I believe Stephen King said something to the effect of, if your character wouldn’t say “Oh sugar,” then you should write them saying the other thing. Authors writing in a fantasy world have the luxury of making up a swear word or two for their characters to use vigorously. My book is not set solidly in the real world, but the characters come from the real world, so that’s not an option. I’m aiming at the 14 and up crowd, and here’s the solution I’ve reached:

I have one character who swears, and one character who doesn’t. This isn’t an arbitrary decision; it comes directly from the essence of the characters and helps define who they are. The swearing habit actually says a lot about the character. It shows that he is more attached to this world than his friend, and it shows his tendency to fling words at things when he’s angry. When he takes the Lord’s name in vain, it’s even a clue about religious upbringing, though possibly not in the way you’d expect. The swearing is actually a major way that the characters are differentiated from each other in dialogue, especially in those life-or-death type scenes, and I hope this will help the reader get a handle on the characters, and on who is speaking when. So, yes, I let my one character swear freely—but never excessively. He swears when that is what he would say, when that is the only thing he would say, and when the situation warrants it. I never put swears in for the intention of shock value, or to make it seem “edgy.” They are what they are. Would I edit them out if someone who wanted to publish my book asked me to? I honestly don’t know if I would; I think the dialogue would seem artificial without them.

I have completely refrained from using the F-word in my book. I feel the use of that word would cross a major line, one that my guy occasionally saying, “Oh shit,” in a really tricky situation or “dammit” in a moment of emotional duress doesn’t even approach. Would you agree?

I’d love to hear comments on this one, I think it could be a great discussion.

Oh, and I drew this last night (this morning? I couldn’t sleep). Maybe later I will finish it. Did you know Vanya could smile?

Smiling Vanya Sketch

-Grace out

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11 Comments

  1. Grace, you are perfectly named. Thank you for your beautiful and gracious words. I wish you bliss and fulfillment in your writing, and the greatest success.

    Reply
  2. I think using the “F” word is unavoidable. In some scenes it increases the emotional reaction of your readers because it is such a strong word. I don’t however believe it should be used lightly. It’s like in life when a someone is put in a terriable, extreme setting that invokes great anger or emotion, things like that just slip out. If they didn’t you wouldn’t be creating a true to life character.

    Reply
    • I think you are right… with some some characters, in some books. I wouldn’t worry if I was writing for a solely adult audience, but the connotations of the word are so adult that I’d rather avoid it in a book meant for teens. I also don’t think it would slip out in the case of my character, unless it was a situation of a more vulgar nature than anything I plan on writing. He is the kind of person who would avoid dropping an F-bomb in front of a child, and (at least subconsciously) he feels the need to take care of his friend in the same way one takes care of a child. In this way, his nonuse of it seems true to life. But yes, if that word is what a character would say, then you’d be sacrificing authenticity to censor it.

      Reply
  3. I have been watching Battlestar Gallactica and they use “Frackin” its quite as effective and yet……I tend to use “Friggin” not sure they are any better. We have become jaded. I watched a new TV series where they beeped out all the swear words and it was so annoying I could not watch it and that was a pity as it looked quite good. I think if a person shoots himself in the foot he aint gonna say “Bless my soul I shot myself” now is he…………….you do what you need to do to tell the story and keep your characters real. In a childrens book ? well I doubt the characters would swear so no problem. In a young adult? well like they don’t hear it at home these days? Keep it simple and honest or make up a good word for an alternate that would either be funny or else believable……………To change to get it published? Yes by all means………..get your work out there to begin with any way you can. Then when you are able to be yourself you can always redo your originals and re release. Do what ya gotta do girl..

    Reply
    • I love Battlestar Galactica. 🙂 Thanks for commenting! I agree, the bleeps in tv shows and on the radio are really annoying. For songs now they leave a space of silence instead, and I think that works better.

      Reply
  4. Cox Cohen

     /  July 7, 2012

    I don’t have a strong opinion about profanity in writing. It depends on the poem or story. I don’t use profanity in my everyday speech, it’s verbal sloth. I don’t know that any poem is helped by profanity. but I will use it. To me it’s nihilistic or sexually charged. Interesting article though, thanks.

    Reply
  5. Thanks for commenting! Verbal sloth is an interesting way of looking at it; I wonder what folks would come up with if everyone tried to find more interesting ways of expressing themselves.

    Reply
    • jeanine lebrell

       /  July 12, 2012

      Julie,my older sister, works with kids and has been cultivating retro swear words. I think that works perfectly for her but, would seem strange with practically any one else. Oh and for those who watched Recess she is trying to bring back womps.

      Reply
  6. Thanks for your comments on my piece and for pointing me to this article. I totally agree with every word, and you put it very eloquently.

    Reply

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