Picture 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.
So 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?