Authors: To Curse or Not To Curse in Your Novel

reading in the park webPicture this: You’re relaxing in the park with a book. It’s a warm summer day, and you’re reading happily along, when you come across an f-bomb. Does it shock you? Offend you? Or do you not even notice? There are some readers who will put down a book if there are too many swear words in it and immediately write a scathing review about it on Amazon. And every person’s foul language limit is different. The use of profanity in writing can divide an audience like a comb through well-conditioned hair, so should authors use these words at all?


On the one hand, you want to write believable, genuine characters. If you’re writing dialogue for a serial killer or a seasoned war veteran, for example, your character will probably want to swear. Although you could use a distinct lack of swearing when writing dialogue for a serial killer (think Hannibal Lector) as a quirk that adds depth to him, it would only be effective in the context of other swearing characters or a dirty, rough environment. If your character would swear in the situation in which they find themselves, it would seem unnatural if they said “shoot” or “darn,” and could discount all other efforts of making your characters believable. While some readers may be turned off by cussing, others will scoff at you if you inappropriately avoid it.


Personally, I don’t mind cursing in novels I read or write. I refuse to limit any of the language I use when writing, except by what does and does not work for the story at that particular instance. There is, indeed, a time and place for everything.


So how do I know what the right time is? For me, it’s mainly a believability thing. Does this particular curse word work for this particular character, in this particular situation? A  euphemism that is used because the author is uncomfortable writing foul language ruins the scene for me by making the characters less believable. But this goes both ways. If you’re writing a prudish professor or a mild-mannered accountant, an f-bomb would seem grossly out of place. It would, however, make a great tool for illustrating that a push-over had been pushed to his limit. If Clark Kent told me where I could put that TPS report, I’d think twice about asking him to work overtime.


You don’t want to get carried away, though. Swear words are descriptive of a very limited range of emotions, and there are over 3,000 words that describe emotion in the English language. Over-using just a handful of them–any handful–makes for flat and boring writing. If I choose to include cussing in my writing, I make sure it is well-placed, enhances–rather than limits–the story, and won’t overwhelm my intended audience.


SONY DSCSo you have to ask yourself, “Who is my intended audience?”–something you should be asking yourself as you write anyway. For some genres, profanity is not only acceptable, but expected. This is true of horror, noir, and thrillers where violence and profanity often go hand-in-hand. Crude language is generally unacceptable, however, in young children’s books. While YA readers are often of an age where cussing is very acceptable, their parents are generally less excited about it. Some parents are okay with “lower-level” cuss words, but not f- or s-bombs, for example.


I’ve chosen not to use any curse words in this blog post because our audience here at Compulsion Reads is any indie writer or reader. The novel I’m currently writing, however, is aimed at a much more specific audience: one that is interested in joining my characters on a gruesomely honest, no-holds-barred, and often heart-breaking journey, into the apocalypse. If there isn’t swearing in that, I’m not writing it right. If you’re not okay with writing profanity into a story that demands it, write a different story.


So should you curse in your novel?  No one can answer that for any author but him/herself (except maybe their characters). Decide what your own views are on this topic, and be true to them in everything you write;  accept that whatever choice you make will affect who decides to read your novel, and who does not.



As an author, how do you feel about writing profanity?


As a reader, how do you feel when you come across it in a book?

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2 Responses to Authors: To Curse or Not To Curse in Your Novel

  1. jane davis says:

    In 2012 I received a review on Amazon for I Stopped Time which I was not sure I quite deserved: “What I like about her (Jane’s) books is that there is no bad or offensive language – something that you cannot say about a lot of books these days.”

    As to whether charcters should be allowed to swear,my answer would quite simply be, yes – in fact they must, if their writing is to be honest and authentic. As a fellow writer recently blogged: “I work in a factory, and if I was going to depict life in the factory, I couldn’t do it without throwing in some foul language. In all honesty, it actually makes me a bit uncomfortable to hear how some of the guys talk sometimes – but my views of decency and propriety don’t change the way the world actually is.”

    To some, to permanency of the written word means that swearing in print has higher shock value than the spoken word. In 1951, J D Salinger was the first author to use the F-word in The Catcher in the Rye. Over sixty years later, it remains one of America’s most banned books.

    We are more familiar with sound of the F-Word. In 1963, Kenneth Peacock Tynan, literary manager for the National Theatre Company briefly became the most notorious man in the country by becoming the first to use it on British television, a move later referred to as a ‘masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.’ Mary Whitehouse only added to the equation when she wrote to the Queen demanding he should be reprimanded by ‘having his bottom spanked.’ How times have changed, Gordon Ramsey (and you, a father of four). This anomaly appears to remain. The opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, consisting almost entirely of the F-Word, manages to remain inoffensive, but it is necessary to be in the right frame of mind to stomach Vernon God Little.

    And yet there are alternatives. Ronnie Barker sought authenticity for his 1973 prison-based comedy-drama, Porridge. By introducing the word, ‘Nark’, to the English language he avoided causing offence and gained an enviable family-based audience of 15 million.

    I believe that over-use sorely diminishes the impact of good old Anglo Saxon language. I am currently reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which the first swear word appears on page 148. It is so shocking in context, coming from Harold’s imagination as it does, and a damning self-assessment of his failings as a father, that it triggered a real emotional response in me. Joyce follows this up by introducing a truly good character called Martina whose language, in my mother’s often-used phrase, ‘leaves much to be desired’. But not knowing this to begin with, the reader may start to judge the character. Because there is kindness in Martina’s intentions, once we get to know her, just as it is in life, her choice of words ceases to be offensive.

    Not all readers, it seems, can distinguish, between the views of the writer and the views of their characters. Stephen King offers this comfort: “Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or down-right psychopathic.”

    And so I continue to allow my characters to swear, when the situation demands it. But not Sir James Hastings who will always, for me, remain an English gentleman. But nineteen-year old Jenny Jones? I allow her to swear at him once – to really grab his attention.

    “Your trouble is you’re judging him by today’s standards. It was extremely unusual for a man to raise a child by himself in those days. I was lucky not to have been farmed out to spinster aunts.”

    “And your trouble is that you’ve never given a moment’s thought to your mother’s point of view!”

    “I beg your -”

    “You worshipped your father, while she was always the villain!”

    “What do you know about it?” I exploded, red-faced, but Jenny was undeterred.

    “Quite a lot, actually. All of this!” Placing a small pile of photographs on the table, she deliberately sent them spinning in all directions. Her hands at shoulder level, she looked about the room at the growing piles of debris we had created, while the boxes in the hallway still appeared as mountainous as ever. “I don’t know what you see when you look at your mother’s work, but I’ve been looking at the world through her eyes! Have you even noticed what she chose to photograph when she wasn’t working in her studio?”

    “I, er -”

    She looked at me while I stammered, unable to lift my eyes from the table. “Middle aged women and young boys! Mothers and sons: everything she didn’t have.”

    “Perhaps they made interesting subjects -”

    “I’ve tracked the dates on the backs. First we have the women – or perhaps I should say ‘the mothers.’” She snapped a number of photographs face down on the table in front of me, the dates clearly written, not within the official stamp of the Parker’s studio, but in plain blue ink. “Then we have a gap of several years. But when we come back, the subjects change: boys this time. 1927. 1928. 1929. And here. 1930. Look at them! See how they’re getting older?” Impossible to argue, I nodded feebly. “I’m willing to bet they’re almost the same age you would have been. Your mother spent the first part of her life looking for the mother she never knew. Then she spent the second part of her life looking for the son she never knew. I wouldn’t call that the actions of someone who didn’t give a shit. Would you?”

  2. Joselie says:

    I’m not a fan of crude language, sex, violence or gore in what I read. Sure, there is a place for it but I don’t want to see it in everything.

    I am not a prude but I guess I don’t want the real world when I read books.

    I don’t get the fascination with realism. To me, it doesn’t make the story necessarily better. Escapist entertainment should be by its nature an escape from the real world. It should be about what we wish we could do or have. If a book reminds me too much of my life or of real world problems i don’t want to conquer right now, that doesn’t make me think “hmm, this is quite edgy and original”, nope, I quit reading the book.

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