Profanity in Your Writing
I am a very character-driven person. My characters are real people to me, and I want them to act how real people would act. So, I am an advocate of using profanity in writing… though it should be done tastefully. What do I mean by that? I have a list for that, but we’ll get to it in a bit. First, a little background info.
Well, my father drops F-bombs left and right. He is the kamikaze of profanity, if you will. He doesn’t care who is there, who is nearby, how people feel about it… but that’s just how he is. He hardly ever means it in an offensive way, but if he can stick one in a sentence, he’s going to do it.
So, if I fashion a character after my father, colorful language and all, I may drop a bomb or two – maybe not an F-bomb, but a bomb nonetheless. However, there is also another line I must be careful of… Not only must I use profanity tastefully (If there is such a thing…), but I must also toe the line of not making it so profane that my book is no longer YA.
Let’s face it. Most teens cuss. Some do it around their parents more than others, but they’re doing it nonetheless. Their world is full of sparkly F-bombs, glittery s-words, and a word that sounds and looks like dam. Regardless, the target group isn’t just the teens… the target group tends to also encompass the parents. Some parents may not care, but some really do. The goal here is to keep the parents happy and our characters true to themselves.
Now, for my list:
- USE LESS F-BOMBS
Like I said before, my dad loves the F-bomb. It’s probably his favorite word in the whole English language, but I digress… Though a character may be based on him, I’ll probably make him say it… Once. Twice might be pushing it. Instead, I’ll use lesser words on the Tier of Offensiveness if he happens to want to come in with a bit of profanity. May not seem like that big of a difference, but you’d be surprised how different the response is when you put “shit” instead of… Well, the other word.
- SAVE THE PROFANITY FOR HEIGHTENED POINTS OF EMOTION
This is an obvious one, but we’ll talk about it anyway. Emotion is key in writing, that’s just the way it is. That emotion, to make it the most realistic, will probably call for strong language because in real life, there would be strong language used there. Not every time, but most of the time. The blow will be softened because, hopefully, your readers will be feeling that heightened emotion, too. They’ll understand it better.
- PLEASE, NO “CORNY” REPLACEMENTS
Unless your character is overly child-like, or is actually a child… don’t put something overtly corny in the place of using a profane word. I have read a book where every time “shit” would be appropriately used, the author would substitute it with “corn-nuggets.” While it made me pause a few times and giggle at the randomness of the word… it got really old, really fast. Especially when a character is shot in the chest with an arrow and the only bit of emotional dialogue is, “Corn-nuggets! NameOfCharacterHere, no!” I wanted to be shocked. I wanted to be upset like the MC… but… Corn-nuggets? Really? I think a profane word would have been just fine right there, but I suppose that’s just my own opinion on that.
Let your characters be themselves. There are always going to be people who hate what you have to say, no matter how family-friendly the content is. It’s a balancing act that takes time and a lot of editing to work on, but there is a balance. Just be yourself and write the book you want to write.
Now, for my favorite part of every blog post: the discussion. What are your rules for profanity in your writing? What’s your opinion on the matter? Have any tips or tricks? Comment below!
Thanks for reading!
Good article. A lot of people swear left and right, diluting the purpose of the word. Swears are definitely wildcards, but played too often lose their value.
Exactly. Using them just to use them makes them less valuable as words. Saving them for heightened points in writing makes them seem much more emotional and necessary. Plus, it’s just easier on the eyes.
Profanity has far more impact if you only use it sparingly.
Of course, I cheat. My fantasy novels have, as their central character, a pilot named Sorrel. She swears like a trooper, and uses obscenities without really thinking about it. But I’m not at all fond of real obscenities. So Sorrel’s bad language includes the words “volg”, “squum” and “lafquass” – used just as though they were profanities, the reader quickly gets the idea. The Sorrel novels are written in the first person, so she swears regularly, but without any actual bad language.
That’s a great point! Good work, my friend. Your use of “profanity” is both tasteful and characterizes, but without the pain of actually reading profanities.
Nice tip/trick. Thank you for the comment!
The more profanity then the less likely I am to finish the book or movie.
Having said that I did write one short story where the plot turned on the word ‘f–k’and how a character responded to it. In my novels my characters are young and if they hit their thumb with a hammer they don’t say ‘Oh dear’ or ‘Bother’ but for the most part I try to avoid it. Why antagonise a sizable portion of your readers when it’s unnecessary.
Thanks for bringing this up, Lissy. Too many people avoid the dilemma (Corn-nuggets! I must remember that.) I’ve only used the F-word in one flash fiction story. It was to help characterize the main protagonist, a gangland thug who showed an unexpected tenderness. As you say, when it’s needed, use it.
Peter, did you ever see the British sci-fi TV comedy “Red Dwarf”? Their invented swear-word “smeg” (or smegging”) sneaked through into mainstream TV programming, despite being based on a particularly unsavoury body substance. I like “squum” by the way.
Profanity was never a very big part of my life! My mother couldn’t even say the word Hell right! I learned to say “Shit” by saying, Sugar honey ice tea! Real people at some point use profanity when they are ready to blow their tops! So it’s ok to some point. I’m not a big fan of it, but it is a part of our lives!
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I approve. 🙂