What’s your take on curse words in books? The characters in my short stories tend to have potty mouths, and I’ve wondered how my use of curse words may offend new readers. Even worse is the worry of the bad review that will someday appear because my fictional creations are the type of people who use a lot of curse words. Even though I aim to craft insightful stories that capture the goings on of everyday people, my efforts could be disdained by some simply because of a colorful phrase or two (or more depending on the context of the story).
Curse Words in Books: Yea or Nay?
What exactly is it about curse words that offend? The famous comedian George Carlin loved to explore the boundaries of language. If you know anything about George Carlin, you know he likes to use curse words, so please don’t say I didn’t warn you if you click on the video clip below in which he makes the following point:
There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those words in and of themselves. They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent.
Curse words only have as much power as we give them. How can a writer effectively capture a character who is a racist, a drug addict, or an abuser without giving that character authentic language to speak? In a moment of rage, I know I do not cry “Oh muffins!”
Curse words can reveal a lot about a particular character’s background, mindset, or locale. Some readers feel anxious when they encounter bad language, and I wonder if that drives a significant number of authors to censor the words they give their characters to speak? It’s understandable that authors of young adult fiction generally keep their language clean, but I’m referring to books aimed at adults.
Admittedly, this post barely brushes the wide variety of implications associated with using curse words in books. It’s an issue I’ve been mulling over for a long time, but a recent post on Leora Wenger’s blog Sketching Out titled Fashion and Modesty explored a teacher’s use of questionable language. It struck a chord because one reason I left the classroom is that I write stories so many parents would take issue with.
Most of all, I just find myself wondering why purposely limiting one’s exposure to explicit or suggestive language is considered healthy. I’ve often felt the opposite. The more I can expose myself to harsh situations in story worlds, the better I can understand what makes all kinds of people tick. I guess it comes down to the purpose a reader sets when picking of a book.
What are your thoughts on the use of curse words in books? When do you feel an author crosses the line of good taste, and how do you know?
Photo Credit: Freedom of Speech
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.
Like Carlin, and you, I do not feel there is such a thing as bad words or bad language. There is bad taste, or poor taste as to when to use what words.
When in a book the character is a piss head who leads a life on the fringes of society, or has in any other way the need to swear, it shows his character. Nothing wrong with that. it would be rather inconsistent to have a character who is less ‘clean’ to use censored language. (A crack addict won’t say, “Oh, jolly boo.” Nope! He’s probably go for a real cuss word. (didn’t give an explicit example as to not to have those who are firmly opposed to certain words a reason feel offended. In a book I wouldn’t be so considerate. Not if the situation and character call for strong language.)
Great post and food for thought indeed.
The words you choose to put into a characters mouth reveals so much about who they are. Not disagreeing with your comment, but I think it would be intriguing to have a crack addict who actually says “Oh, jolly boo!” in a story instead of something more colorful. Think about what that would mean to the narrative of the story, and where that character would take you when the unexpected comes out of their mouths. Here is someone who has made lots of bad choices in life, and yet continues to cling to some weird sense of morality that prohibits him/her from swearing.
Karen, I’m reminded of the character of Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s novel Misery. She’s the perfect example of a creepy character who uses unexpected language, and hearing her utter words like “cockadoodie” really does add a whole new level of interest to her character. Here’s this lady who proclaims herself Paul Sheldon’s #1 fan, and then proceeds to hobble him so he can’t escape. All the while her hesitancy to use curse words is a stroke of literary genius.
Lucy, I feel it’s so important to give characters authentic dialog, but I really do struggle with doing so, though I never hesitated in stories I wrote long ago. Then I spent six years in the classroom and forever dealt with parents who question every little questionable word they come across. Now that I don’t have that force in my life, I need to remind myself that I’m an adult writing for adults.
I don’t consider myself on the fringes of society, I can even be called respectable and yet I curse. I don’t use derogatory or racists language, because it is unpleasant to me and also unnecessary when I want to insult someone. If you’ve annoyed me enough that I want to insult you, I can be more creative than calling you “bad” words. 🙂 The point is, it depends on my mood and context. Why wouldn’t fictional creations also be developed along similar lines? Isn’t it the objective of a writer to suspend the reader’s disbelief? Some characters will curse, some won’t.
Unless the objective is to create two dimensional characters who operate based on the dictates of the politically correct, they may occasionally use bad words, they might even commit crimes, be morally unappealing or behave in other questionable ways that carry the plot of an adult novel forward and keep me reading.
Debra, you offer great support along the lines of the reasoning I used to offer my creative writing students when it came to crafting believable characters. Still though, I think a residual effect geared toward avoiding reading or hearing offensive language in movies gets leftover in the case of people who may be overly sheltered during their younger years. Too many times I’ve come across readers who automatically demote the worth of a story if it contains explicit language, rather than look at how the language fits the context. Such encounters always sadden me, as if another nail has been driven in literature’s coffin.
My book contains lots of profanity. Often in creative ways such as “douchecopter” and “Absofuckinglutely”. I just think it’s funny not offensive, but what do I know? 🙂
Madge, the f-word is the only word in the English language that can function as all eight parts of speech. Linguistically, it really is a fascinating word indeed 😉
Times are changing. Ezra Pound chose to hide the ‘f-bomb’ from ignorant prudes by using Greek letters. “Love Story” (the movie) made waves in 1970 when the Ali McGraw character said “bullshit.” Edgy words in Oscar-winning On Golden Pond (1981) are now selling points. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6zflcf5bfc
So, don’t worry about it. Write what you know.
Al, just watched the clip. What a great idea to splice together all the cussing that takes place in the entire movie as a way to create viewer-interest in such a highly-esteemed movie. Playing with reader and viewer expectations is always a great move.
Great topic — I use curse words myself. Not a lot, but there is nothing like an expletive to convey the exact meaning of what you’re feeling — usually when I’m yelling at myself for doing something stupid! It’s when the curse words are meant to hurt — in context as Carlin says — that they become offensive. They are essential in literature, in context. You wouldn’t use curse words in a children’s book.
George Carlin influenced many comedians. I still laugh at one of his classic routines “Stuff.” I just watched it again in which he uses a couple of curse words which work exactly right. It’s had over 4 million views on YouTube. Here is the link if you want a few laughs.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac.
Jeannette, Carlin’s “Stuff” routine is definitely one of my favorites as well. He’s a great example of using well-timed curse words for comedic effect. There’s an art to effectively using curse words, just as there is to using metaphor, paradox, and countless other literary elements.
Hi Jeri – Curse words are everywhere today. A writer can hardly not use them on principle without losing credibility, seems to me. But, readers can tell when you’re pasting in a curse word just to get a laugh or a gasp.
Larry, that’s certainly true, but there are a good number of readers who do shy away from material that contains cursing. I suppose it’s best not for me to think about it too much, otherwise I’ll end up creating stilted language.
I find this an interesting topic and so i’m jumping on the band wagon and expressing myself on the soap-box.
I’ll start by saying when i was younger I greatly admired the writing of Stephen King… who says about the use of F-words and its ilk, “if you must seek out another word than the one that first pops in your mind, then you’re not being true to yourself or the character or the world,” not a word for word quote, but it’s basically what he meant; the exact quote is in his book “On Writing.”
Honesty is everything if you ever expect to suspend disbelief in a reader’s mind in regards to your writing. It means a lot more than just getting your history/facts correct. It means understanding your character completely and being true to who that character is.
Again, with Stephen King. there came a book of his that when i read it, i grew weary of that potty mouth; his books tend to be large and the words were excessive; i would tell people, ‘the concept was great, but if he had cut back on those foul words, the book would be a hundred pages shorter…and it would be no loss.’ Teenagers and a ‘bad-ass’ car is the book i refer to and the movie version was actually pretty well done. To him, he felt every one of those f-words was needed or he wouldn’t have put them in there. He’s a writer who writes as true to his characters as he can get and if it offends, oh well; people know he has a reputation for ‘no holds barred’ writing. He’s not holding a gun to anyone, saying ‘read my stuff or else;’ in fact, I’ve heard him say in interviews, he is still ‘amazed at the success he’s had and that he has so many loyal fans. And wonders if he might wake up one day and find everything was just a dream….’
It was because of Stephen King that i swore as a young writer, i’d not write a lot of curse words into my works; well, years have passed and I’ve had some maturing thoughts, and now i understand where Stephen King was standing and his view is a view I hold, too. No, i won’t lower my integrity standards to use excessively; i still hold that vow to self; but on occasion in my writing the swear words pop up; and they tend to be in natural situations where if it was me; i’d not be able to help myself from it, even if it offended a 90-year-old lady; if the pain is sufficient, God look the other way if you don’t like a few expletives; I do wonder how that old lady got through 90 years without hearing the f-word before she met me!
So realism is a must in life and in my writing. thank you.
Jeriann, for me the struggle seems to be deciding what exactly is excessive use of foul language since the perception of such is such an individual choice. Thanks for adding to the conversation by bringing up so many pertinent points.
OMG. Hahaha. That’s fantastic! Oh, jolly boo! My new favorite curse phrase. I don’t mind swearing but I really shudder at the “c” word used for females, unless it is actually referring to her anatomy, like in erotica. Just warn the reader. Then people who are offended by cursing can safely stick to MG, YA and inspirational! Of course that didn’t help me any. I still got a two star from a lady who only read MG and the “classics.” Life.
Kara, I’m sitting on the fence on whether or not to warn the reader about language. I think about adding a warning line to the description of my short story collection, but then wonder if I should because such warnings really aren’t common practice. My philosophy has always been that books are like life: There’s bound to be something offensive, but making a big deal over it usually isn’t worth the effort. Book characters are like real life characters in what we all approach life differently, so I try to be as accepting as possible when it comes to language and overall content.
I see your point. And many times a warning doesn’t even work. It’s a coin toss.
Kara, one of the reasons I think I hesitate to even place a language warning on any stories I’ve published now or in the future is exactly as you point out. I think some people just like to voice their displeasure about the use of swear words, even when they aren’t really that offended by such words.
I think it depends on the book and the subject matter. It’s hard to believe that The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton only had one “bad” word in it…damn. Technically, by today’s language, that’s tame.
Many of the sex scenes I write and read have curse words in it, and it works. In my opinion, it’s only wrong if it’s forced. If it’s natural in the flow, we’re good. 😉
Kitt, I like how you put it: “It’s only wrong if it’s forced. If it’s natural in the flow, we’re good.” I did however come across a collection of short stories that the author had re-written his stories to remove “vulgar” language and thus reach a larger audience because some reader felt put off by his characters using such language. I’m still working my way though how I feel about this, and will be able to form a better opinion after I read the collection.
I’ve never sworn much as a person, in fact I showed my disrespect in far cleverer ways while growing up.
I think you covered the reasons for profanity in art quite widely here already – in that it’s established that it’s necessary where appropriate.
Personally, in my real life, I tend to use it for humour or when I’m really mad – which is still SOME kind of humour – and largely I do the same in my books – only using it sparingly though. HOWEVER, there will always be a character, as you say, whose dialogue needs to include swearing, sometimes an excess of it, or they won’t be authentic, and so if the reader wants butterflies and roses… well… go buy a book of the same title.
I also think it might be cultural; readers from certain parts of the States, I’ve noticed over the years on writing sites, don’t want to contend with it in any shape or form, yet others do. Being from the UK and Canada, we don’t tend to bleep out profanity on, say, for instance, TV – where, when used, seems to be normal (enough) and even adds to the sentiment being made. It just isn’t a big deal. By contrast, unless a speciality channel, when I see the censorship on many of the American TV shows we get here, it always astounds me that they’re usually about some kind of crime; murder, rape, hackers, cannibalism etc. and that that’s alright to show, but the F-bomb ain’t. In that vein, an excess of swearing would be, to me, displayed in Quentin Tarantino movies, and so in relation to writing, if I were to see that kind of usage of there, yes, I would find it way too much.
One last word; I find it fucking ridiculous, that many writers choose to bleep their own swearwords, spelling it f**k or some such thing, I’ve even seen the word bitch bleeped out – like… that does mean you’re not actually using it? Not! That’s a cop out and suggestive to me that the writer is not fully invested in their characterisation. I would never pick up anything of theirs again.
Recently, I released a novelette, where the MC is ignorant, and in that ignorance she is overly rude, crude and seemingly racist, and it concerned me briefly that I should put such a thing out there – as a writer though, I have to stay true to what a person of her background would be like, and so if people are offended, then that’s just a part of being a writer, first and foremost I stay true to myself, and therefore my characters. To coin a cliché, ‘you can’t please all the people all the time.’
SP, not being able to please all the people all the time is indeed true, and something I try to remind myself of from time to time. I pretty much stopped writing when I started teaching due to issues with “appropriate content” and the nature of my job. Alas, all teachers are supposed to be perfect beings outside of work as well as at work 🙁 I get really worked up about people who profess to be offended by bad language, and yet go around saying this life “eff it” or “feck it” or “oh fudge.” The context and means of delivery still means “fuck” no matter what alternate letters are used. Hypocrites, every last one of ’em!
I am clearly in the minority here. I come from the viewpoint that there are many classy, beautiful, underused, considerate, modest, respectable, non-threatening, supportive, uplifting words in the English language that are ignored for the sake of shock, over the top, that’s just the way it is substitutions. I do not use curse words personally and as a high school teacher who tries to model a kinder vocabulary, I do not allow my students to curse in my classroom and point out when they do. This includes using the names of deity in a profane way. Since 2000, there seems to be a proliferation of books that have inserted a plethora of curse words. I am turned off by novels that overuse profanity for whatever reasoning. Call me old fashioned, but I believe “Clean and intelligent language is evidence of a bright and wholesome mind.”
So do you review them, when you know they have profanity? Just curious.
Kara, I would never hesitate to review a book that uses profanity. I usually hesitate to review books that show generally immature writing, regardless of how many curse words may appear.
Caryn, I agree to an extent, but sometimes a well-placed curse word can have a fabulous effect. Some characters would never use such words, but some would. Within reason, I think it’s great when author’s purposely harness the power of language for a little shock value, because words are only shocking if we left them be. Such baggage comes with language and the power and perception that is tied up with it.
Caryn, I actually see it rather the way you see it. Curse words have become the bland background in our current culture because they get over-used. And they become a crutch, an easy go-to, instead of being creatively precise with language.
At the same time, I agree with Jeri that curse words can give characters in novels good definition. In my novel Revelle (rhymes with gazelle, about a thirtysomething would-be dancer who has a lot of interesting problems) there are only a few curse words. For example, the only time the protagonist uses the f word is when she’s describing her outrage over the private school she teaches at, when they decided to drop her after-school dance troupe to save money, “but they kept the f—ing fencing club!” she says furiously. Revelle’s passion for dance gets underlined by her rare use of a curse word. Which I guess speaks to both Caryn’s point, and Jeri’s point.
Good topic, Jeri — everyone has an opinion on it.
looks like you are getting some great dialogue on the subject.
IMHO it’s the context of the material being written.
I’ve written in many arenas (radio, education, churches, non-profits, fiction, non-fiction, poetry…)
I do not publish my work with religious publishers so that I have the leverage to use profanity. However, as I have heard from both famous and your run of the mill writers “There is an extensive amount of expressive words to be used by the writer. Why would you show your limitations by just using a handful of words?”
I tend to use expletives sparingly so when they are used they stand out with meaning and expression. If my character lives in the gutter, then he likely has a limited and colorful vocabulary and he knows how to use it.
As a children’s author, I stay clear of expletives but that’s probably because I am still offended when a 5 year old can swear like sailor.
Moondustwriter, when I didn’t worry about how readers would react to my work as much, my characters cursed a lot more back in the good old days when I was taking writing classes. Now that I’m trying to market myself, I find that I’m being more hesitant in letting the true colors of my mostly off-color characters show. That troubles me that writers censor themselves that way, but I suppose it’s inevitable in an age where so many people take offense at so many things.
I use curse words in life and in writing. People give them power. There’s no other word that pulls from the gut quite like F***. My characters aren’t perfect. They’re flawed with a mouth to prove it.
Depending on genre and story, I believe curse words should be used to fit the characters and story. The one thing I love writing the most is dialogue, and when I read phony dialogue, it drives me crazy. In today’s times, you’re not going to have a woman reject a guy because she’s in a relationship, and he turns and says, “Oh golly, gee, I didn’t know that.”
I think an author crosses the line when the cursing becomes monotonous, or you can only see any other reason for it to be in the story other than for shock value.
I’d probably say, I’m more sensitive to content than curse words. I can handle an A**hole or B**ch once in a while; it’s the creepy content that I steer clear of when choosing books.
Denise, I readily admit to cursing in real life as well. When I stub my toe, I most definitely do not cry, “Ow!” There’s nothing worse than monotonous cursing in books. It’s like when a kid first tries it out. The overuse of any kind of language gets old real fast.
Well, you certainly have different blog readers than I do, Jeri! I don’t think my readers enjoy the curse words at all.
It seems to me that in a story, if the character curses, it should be part of the story. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to read the story. It’s nice to know there is room on the planet for those who tolerate curses, those enjoy curses, those who disdain curses, and any combinations thereof.
Found this curious curse in Ulysses: “shite and onions!”
Leora, here’s to all combinations of readers and writers! The world can certainly accommodate all types, though it sometimes seems that those who find displeasure in supposedly “offensive” material sometimes end up speaking with the loudest voices.
I have told this story before when the subject of cursing comes up.
When I was in culinary school I knew a woman who refused to swear in front of her children. Her reasoning being that there is enough of that in the world that she didn’t think she needed to add to what her kids were exposed to.
That is all well and good, at least until you realize the image you are giving to your children. Next you will be saying that you don’t talk about sex with your children or drugs or fight with your spouse in front of your kids. `
I am a firm believer in the use of appropriate cursing (and inappropriate cursing for fun and profit). My kids know that I am human and human beings swear. It is a disservice to your children to hide your faults from them. They need to know that your life is normal and that you are normal.
For comic intent you can make a grammatically correct sentence with the f-word alone. Is it wrong to have swear words and such in literature. My god I hope not. How boring and unnatural would our world be? Oh wait, we would be back in the 1950s where it was wrong to discuss anything with our children and burning of books because you found them inappropriate was ok.
What is the surest sign that someone will do something? Tell them not to do it.
Jon, well said. Though I don’t have kids, I used the same approach in the classroom. Of course I didn’t curse in front of students, but I did make sure to talk about the contexts where various kinds of language will occur. Plus I also admitted that I did use choice words from time to time when not at work. They always got a kick out of that. It’s so important that parents, teachers, and friends own up to the fact that we all don’t think and feel the same way about language.
Jeri, if the word fits, then use it. We hear the language in the movies and on television. If it offends your readers, they weren’t really your readers anyway. I always feel we attract the right people if we do our work from authenticity. And you are certainly being that. Thanks.
Patricia, thanks for noting I am coming across as authentic. Perhaps authentically neurotic would be more apt since I fret about all of these types of issues so much 😉
This is completely dependent on the context. I’m likely to use “curse words” in dialog but most of the time I’ll avoid them in descriptive text simply because there are other options. While in dialog, the need to sound natural, to sound real, often leads to YES nasty words. Real life = real words…
I don’t freak if I read them in fiction, but if the character has no other words I just tune it out. Boring dialog is boring dialog in the real world and in a story, too.
Candy, I think I’m like you in that regard. When characters do use explicit language, I have them do so in dialogue. Though I guess I would also do so as well to an extent when describing things when I write in the first-person.
Yes! I think it’s about the perspective and the voice.
It’s natural for some narrators to curse in descriptive text, just as it is for other characters to curse in naturalistic dialog. Of course you have to be careful about which characters use which words, when & why.
If you’ve got a real belle she might dis someone and add “Lord love ’em” and it’s more evil than any expletive deleted stream of obscenities from a Brooklyn-born cop. It’s matching the words with the character.
Candy, thanks for stopping by to comment a second time… deja vu is setting in. The words must indeed fit the character.
I agree with Jeannette Paladino.
There is a time and place for everything, and curse words are part of our language, so why not use them, when appropriate?
Lorraine, yet the notion of “appropriate” use can sway so widely when put in front of different audiences. Most everyone who has left comments on this post feels using profanity within reason is okay. I wonder what all of the naysayers might think? Oh well, I guess they’re not regular readers of my blog.
Personally, I sometimes avoid it where it actually can be avoided; I’ll say ‘He cursed’ in a sentence or other forms of description. However, I’m not opposed to using it in dialogue if it will show something unique to a character or, as you said, serves the story and plot by displaying something important. After all, even in a story we’re representing something in reality also. Curse words are a part of reality and many people let such slip every now and then; when they do and when they do not says a lot about their personalities.
Kyra,, I admire your approach. One of the words most often applied to my writing is “edgy.” I’m not sure if it’s because my characters can speak in a no-holds barred manner, or just because I gravitate toward everyday subject matter that comes across as a bit risky. I just seem to have a penchant for grittiness, so I need to embrace it 😉
Wow… I don’t think I have anything to add to this conversation. Great conversation! I think you have to use the words in a story that apply to make the story credible. Sometimes that means using unpleasant words.
Cheryl, I know! This was definitely an engaging post topic. Now to think of more along the lines of this one…
I”m kinda going through the same issue, there are curse words in my book too, but more explicitly, sexual content….which one editor told me they prefer not to read. So…….same boat different stroke.
Oh yes, sexual content could be another post entirely. I think I just go an idea…
I don’t use cuss words but I think it has its place in literature if used in moderation just to sketch out strong characters.Words do have a lot of power and each vibration can be nurturing or destructive – see Masuro Emoto’s work on water crystals. I think it’s there on youtube.
Jeri – You really touched a subject that has gained a lot of conversation. I agree that words are only words but the context they are used in is what offends people. Additionally one person may not take offense to the context but another might.I believe you can’t please everyone and write how you want to be heard.
Elizabeth, I like how you phrase that: “write how you want to be heard.” Which begs the question of how settled I feel in deciding how it is I want to best be heard… if it’s occasionally via foul-mouthed characters, so be it 😉
I completely agree with you, Jeri, there’s no reason to keep these words off limits unless there are small children around. And in a book, well, if it’s something the character would say, then it just adds truth. Sometimes, people will curse for the shock value, but in a story – each scenario has to be weighed on its own merits. btw have always loved that bit by George Carlin – what a guy!
Krystyna, George Carlin is one of my linguistic heroes! His observations on language and communication are phenomenal. I often wonder when another comedian will come along who is as sharp-witted and perceptive as he was (and still is through the magic of YouTube).
Interesting discussion Jeri. I swear, although probably not as much these days. But a well placed or used swear word can work well. It has to do with context. I don’t mind swear words in books, although I find the overuse of them boring and they get in the way of the story I am reading.
Susan, you make such a valid point. If the words are over-used, they lose their intended effect.
Curse words and just that words. I think when being read it is one feeling but totally another when they person is there in front of you saying it.
Krystle, isn’t it strange how spoken words can have such a different impact than written ones? I think we get a better sense of of the intended mood from the intonation of spoken words that can’t be conveyed as well when it comes to words on the page.
I’m all for language that is appropriate for the character (and by that I mean language that the character would normally use in the context of the fictional life). We have the same debate in theatre and as I’m primarily involved in youth theatre it becomes quite tricky. If the play is written about characters who would swear normally (often contemporary plays, but not always), then there is no reason to leave them out – unless you are sanitising your play so you don’t offend your audience. But by playing to your audience in this way you are not honouring the author’s intentions. Some would argue that the characters just shouldn’t swear, but when pressed their reasoning is ‘because they personally feel it is wrong’ (thereby not only commenting on the social context of the play but attempting to hi-jack it). It’s an emotive issue and a great debate.
Barbara, your comment reminds me of the circles I went around in with my administrator when a student’s parent took issue with the collection of short stories I was teaching from for my creative writing class. We never did come to a suitable understanding of what type of language in stories is and isn’t acceptable for high school students.
I don’t swear as much as I used but dome of them to release aggression. George Carlin is my all time favorite comedian and yes he used swear words, but I never found offensive as he was not only funny but a very intelligent man. Richard Pyre was another comedian he used f…. after everything he said and he was very popular.At the end of the day they are just words, and it is really how we interpret them. It is almost expected.
Arleen, George Carlin is probably the best example there is on using curse words in an intellectual way. I can’t say my characters are as witty as him, but such a lofty goal can’t hurt. Maybe someday.
I think that curse words work if they fit with the character’s personality. If the words are just thrown in because the author has an affinity for them, they may not work with the story. I do personally shy away from using curse words in my real life. That being said, if my character uses them in his or her daily life then it needs to be a part of the story. The characters do become ‘real’ then and they seem to want to do what they please as I type anyways hehe 🙂
Christy, it’s one of the best feeling in the world when the characters just completely take over and start doing and saying all kinds of things. I like it when their language surprises me. I guess maybe I should try to write a prim and proper character since they would be more of a stretch for me.
If a curse word is ok or not in a book depends on what kind of book it is. It can only be used in fiction.
And when it comes to blogs, it’s out of question on my blog, or my website for that matter. But it happens that I swear in real life:-)
Catarina, I wouldn’t say that curse words can only be used in fiction. There is a wealth of creative nonfiction, such as works by the essayist David Sedaris that make use of humorous and colorful language.
I use occasional ‘bad’ words. I don’t care if they are used so long as it meets the context of the character or happening. But sometimes swear words are just overused so I tune out. Some comics over use the ‘F…’ word. I tune out and loose the meaning of the funny line. So, when used smartly, go ahead.
Judy, thanks for visiting. Looks like most of those who left comments on this post are for smartly used curse words 😉
You said it in your first paragraph, as long as the curse words are in context with the story, no problem! (I am assuming that you are writing for an adult audience). However, I find some peoples everyday use of gratuitous curse words in every sentence quite offensive. And when they are beeped out of reality TV shows in every sentence, I am horrified that these people can’t form a sentence without cursing!
Grace, I get where you’re coming from with the overuse of bad language in reality TV. Those who curse left and right show evidence of a small mind.
First let me say sorry for my neglecting my comments on your post. I have been so swamped with my newest project that it help me back but here I am now. Though I try not to use foul language in my speaking and not in my writing, I am not adverse to reading from a character that is more colorful. I believe as long as it is in the write context, I am okay. 🙂
Susan, oh come on now… I can totally see you cursing up a storm when you’re angry 😉
OK, yeah, maybe your right… hee, hee. 🙂
GREAT discussion. I don’t mind curse words if they fit the character and situation. Just “overheard” a conversation between academics about a blog post (not mine) that used the F-word–and many were offended. (It’s called Twelve Habits of Healthy People Who Don’t GIve a Sh*t About Your Inner Peace, if you want to read it.) It didn’t bother me because the voice of the author sounded absolutely authentic. Thanks for this great post and wonderful conversation.
Rochelle, I can just picture a bunch of professors getting up in a huff over such language. Were they lit professors? I can’t imagine the creative writing folks have the same reaction…
It definitely depends on the context whether or not curse words are OK. Also, usage needs to be in moderation. If every other word is profanity it drowns out everything else around it.
Cassi, it’s never good when a writer relies on one form of language at the sake of other areas of the story. My biggest pet peeve is endless description that does nothing to advance the story.
Cursing, or swearing as we call it in Australia, is only natural. And I think limiting a character’s language creates a false character if they “would” swear in real life. Just a random example, the popular Breaking Bad – Jessie swears, as that is who he is, how he was educated and the people he hangs with. Without it, he would be a different person. Some people find it offensive, but of course they have a right to not read your work or watch the show. It is sad though, because real life is full of variety and we should embrace it all!
Ashley, I love Breaking Bad so much! It’s one of my favorite TV shows. You’re so right about Jessie. If he used different language, he just wouldn’t be the same character at all.
I don’t have a problem with cursing in books. If I feel like it’s gratuitous I’ll probably stop reading, no harm, no foul.
Sean, I often wonder where most people draw the line on gratuitous language. I think I obsess over this so much because I used to work in a school district with really sheltered kids. Their parents had no tolerance at all for objectionable language. I guess I’m still trying to sort my way though that, even though the comments on this post make it clear cursing in books doesn’t bother many readers.
Jeri, you triggered a great conversation which is what I find so attractive about blogs as a writing medium — the potential for interactivity.
Ok, back to the subject under discussion….. I think we should strive to teach our children to communicate (on their own behalf) without cursing. (BTW, I failed miserably at that mostly because I was such a poor role model). Frankly, if you are a person who never curses and you suddenly unloose an F bomb, you will certainly underscore your point, much better than someone who uses that word 2-4 times in every sentence.
I think there comes a point, probably starting with high school English, that students should be able to intellectually handle cursing in literature. In fact, it should be a subject of didactic class discussion. Do the students think it enhanced or detracted from the writing? Why? It might be a good time to teach the word “gratuitous”.
“Bad words” have their place, and within the dialog of a character in a book is one of those places. Like you said, it helps define traits about that person. Even so, I do think excessive cursing shows a lack of creativity in the writer. After all, there’s a whole big dictionary full of words to use for every occasion. Why should you limit yourself?
Glynis, I see your point to an extent, but at times a writer may create characters that really don’t have access to many words in the dictionary at all. A narrow minded character will speak with vocabulary fitting of their station in life.
I’m not bothered at all by cursing in books. It’s a way of an author expressing themselves. Everyone curses. Well, mostly everyone I know! I think that if cursing is part of a characters personality than why not? For instance, my best friend is an awesome woman but she curses like a “truck driver”. Now, if she was a character to be portrayed in a novel…the cursing is a must. It’s just part of people’s vocabulary. Right or wrong.
Karen, I think I can relate to your friend since I’ve been known to curse like a “truck driver” as well despite being a well-adjusted person 🙂 Though the urge to curse should be reigned in when situations call for it, but on the printed page, reigning in the language a character just strikes me as not being true to that character.
It astounds me that some of the comments here seem to suggest that the writer might be limited in their vocabulary if they choose to use profanity to portray characters as would happen in the REAL world; that they seem to suggest there’s actually alternatives to colourful vernacular that might be as employed effectively, when in fact there is NO substitution in many instances – not if you’re looking for authenticity anyway.
Sorry, but this to me is simply the pontificating of those who live an idyllist existence – or want to – who simply have a distain for cursing. It’s overzealous.
But that’s not how life ACTUALLY is. Is it? Swearing is global; immersed in every culture, BELONGS in them even, always has been – whether you like it or not, whether your local community has ‘outlawed’ it or not, has its ostrich head stuck up its… ahem… buried in the sand. It has many uses, is multifunctional, emphasises and enhances both intense and humorous situations. In fact, most… shock… horror… swearwords are recognised in the dictionary – at least the last time I looked, they were – as well as the variations of their use being listed in the thesaurus. They will never go away, will never be excluded from fiction, and to even suggest that there are suitable alternatives in many instances of swearing is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
Dialogue is dialogue, you people who have coitus with female parents, a writer who uses profanity is not necessarily one who can’t think of anything else to use, no, rather needs to use if for the sake of being authentic, but one who can demonstrate the ability to do so with an otherwise excellent command of words encompassing and surrounding it; it’s not either or, it’s a combination thereof; it’s not that they can’t think of anything else out of that vast vocabulary you mention; its that nothing else really fits.
Finally, and I know many writers, and yes, including myself, who can demonstrate profanity even while using a narrative voice – don’t like it, don’t read it.
SP, once again your comments have given my actual post a run for its money! Authenticity if key, no matter the language a writer chooses to have spew forth from a character’s mouth, if it’s not authentic, the reader loses some degree of faith in the writer, and that’s definitely not what the author wants to happen.
I have no issue with swear words at all. Most people use them and it makes the reading experience more authentic. I would find it pretty irritating if there were saying oh, muffins 🙂
Becc, I really must delve into the odd Twilight Zone of a community that I used to teach in one of these days in a future blog post. The standard of the community was that curse words were the worst in the world and should never, ever be uttered or read. No wonder I always felt a world apart there.
I had a huge urge to start this comment with a giant “ef yeah!”…. I think language is useful for expressing yourself. Or your character’s selves. Words are a tool and if use effectively, totally worth it.
…I tend to curse a lot on my personal blog, Gastronomical Sovereignty. At first I refrained because I worried about alienating some of my readership but then I thought, well, “ef it”… there are people who appreciate my honesty and I think that’s what’s important. 😉
I curse, a lot. But that doesn’t mean I want everything I read to emulate that.
For me, there is a fine line. 1 curse word per every 50 pages is sufficient, more than that is just overkill.
I see it like this, any Joe schmo can write something containing curse words. The real talent comes in trying to convey the same message or ideas without relying so heavily on curse words.
I don’t want realism. When I read books, I want it to be better than my life. If I am going to shell out the money, I expect quality writing.
Also, reading curse words in a book just interrupts my ability to get into the story. I find it to be jarring and annoying. To me, the amount of curse words used by a writer tells me a lot about whether they are a quality writer or just too lazy to think outside the box.
Lillian, while I can understand your point of view, I must say I disagree. I’ve written characters who use curse words, and to try to prettify their language would be a deficit to properly characterizing their personalities and influences. Language used reveals a lot about a character’s background. There’s talent in using curse words effectively and appropriately, though it’s find if some readers prefer not to read such language. Unlike you, I seek realism in the books I read and in the stories I write. I feel there is something uplifting about connecting on a common level. Thanks for stopping by and voicing your opinion.
I agree with you. There’s a reason it’s called an F-bomb. The pen is mightier, so the word explodes an image in your mind that leaves you deaf to the next few words. In all honesty this is a moral question so there won’t ever be a concensus. But strictly creatively speaking, I find swearing unuseful. I work hard not to use it in life but I’m not perfect. The ‘authentic’ argument is valid up to a point. Strictly financially speaking, I’m not gonna pay for something I can get for free. If I want to hear a string of expletives I don’t have to buy a book, I can just roll down my window during rush hour.
Joye, too much of any sort of language use can be distracting in a book. For example, the overuse of dialect comes to mind. When an author tries to capture the sounds piece by piece, it becomes hard to read. A little flavor on select words is all that’s needed.
Well, I hopped onto your site today for your most recent post about copy editing (great btw – awesome that you get to do what you love!), and I started jumping around to other posts that all seem to be very relevant to me and where I’m at right now. I chose to comment on this one in particular because I just got my manuscript back from my editor and she specifically did NOT like that my MC cursed. She said it made her look crass. I asked my beta readers and they said it seemed totally within the MC’s character and didn’t bother them. My MC is a 19 year old girl, jaded, angry, and doesn’t handle her emotions well. It made perfect sense for me for her to swear. 19 year olds swear! Especially angry ones, so I plan to stick to my guns on that point. I think she only swears about 10 times in the entire novel so it’s not excessive or gratuitous. I just thought it was very interesting that my editor didn’t pick up on that being a normal thing for a 19 year angry girl so I subsequently doubted myself. UGH. Editing is SO hard. Thank you for this post.
Beth, my experiences writing and editing, but especially my experience in the classroom, have continually surprised me just how much some people take offense to bad language in books. I think your plan of sticking to your guns is the right course, especially since your beta readers didn’t take issue with the language used by your teenage character. As the author, you really do know best if the language you’ve used is not excessive since you know your characters best. It’s just saddens me that some readers and editors feel that even one cuss word ruins a book. If the world was populated with people who only spoke sunshine and rainbows, I guess such words would be out of place. But the truth of the matter is that many people, and therefore characters in books, use colorful language.
This thread is what I was looking for. I was beginning to wonder if my short story submissions were being rejected outright because the protagonist in my stories is an abuser who use words like slut, cunt, bitch, and fuck on the regular, a lot in dialog, as it was used in real life. By a lot I mean repeatedly in a high percentage of his dialog. I have had people read my stories, (which are really parts of a larger whole), who have said, “finish this I want to know how it ends” they seem true,y excited about the work. I know rejection letters are the higher percentage when submitting work, but is it the cuss words that are really stopping me?
Brandon, many publications are remiss to print stories with a lot of foul language because of fear of reader backlash. Many will print stories with a peppering of language when it fits the personality of the characters and overall tone of the story. My characters tend to have potty mouths, and I try to keep that in mind when picking which literary journals I will submit to. It’s saddens me that language can be so offensive to some readers, but it’s just the world we seem to live in. People take offense to words when there are far bigger issues that need attention.
I’m in the middle of reading a book about the heyday of radio. In the 30’s, these are the words that were considered off limits for broadcasters: belly, diarrhea, pimples, pregnancy, belching, phlegm, blood pus, colon, vomit, and eruptions. The last one is especially mysterious for me. Having read your short stories, Jeri, I can’t imagine any of your characters sanitized language.
Ken, acceptable words certainly do change over the ages. And yes, my characters do tend to have potty mouths 😉
I think it’s the same in literature as it is in the daily, spoken word- there’s a point where profanity can be egregious and unnecessary, but generally I have no issue with that type of language if it’s part of the social meme. It can be used specifically to shock, and in those cases it’s okay by me too, but to include taboo words for no purpose or out of context seems sloppy.
Great, thoughtful question!
Indeed! All words pressed into purpose in a story need to serve a purpose, and too often they don’t.