Swearing in Fiction

Warning: Due to the discussion topic (swearing in fiction), profanity may be used within the post and comments. Do not proceed if you do not wish to risk encountering vulgarity.

Swearing is a part of life. You swear. Your neighbor swears. Your mom swears. The eighty-year-old Walmart greeter swears. I swear, too. I swear a lot. You may not believe it when you first meet me but give me some time and I’ll be cussing like a sailor. I’ve never had any problems with swearing in fiction. Vulgarity often slips into my writing without a second thought. It’s not until the editing stage that I go back and question the use of cussing because it’s second nature for me.

This tendency raises a couple very important questions: should there be swearing in fiction? If so, how much is too much?

For me, the first answer is pretty clear. Yes, there should be swearing in fiction when appropriate. Obviously you’ll want to avoid vulgarity in your children’s picture book about a rabbit learning the alphabet. Swearing may be a part of life but it wouldn’t be wise to expose children that young to this reality. Some things require baby steps.

However, the criteria for the appropriateness extends beyond the target audience’s age group. Does the book’s contents call for swearing? If it’s in the narration, does the narrative voice justify it? If a character is swearing, does his/her established personality align with this action? If not, is the change at an appropriate time and justified?

You shouldn’t avoid cussing because someday somebody might read it and become offended. You’re a writer. Frankly, everything you’ve done to this point has already offended someone and everything you write from now until the apocalypse will offend at least one person. What you need to worry about is if the vulgarity is not only appropriate for your piece but adds to it. If the story/novel/whatever needs the swearing, write it. Prudes be damned.

On to the second question, how much swearing is too much?

The answer isn’t that different from the first. If it’s a detective novel with a P.I. who has no filter and doesn’t give a rat’s behind about people’s opinions, a lot of cussing may be called for. However, saturating the work with swear words can become tedious and, counter-productively, boring. As with everything in fiction and in life, moderation is key. Sometimes you want a lot of salt on your food, sometimes none, and sometimes something in between. You just have to use your best judgment. When in doubt, ask your beta readers to focus on that aspect while they’re giving you feedback.

Personally, I think anything for people who are 16+ years old should contain some cussing. It’s just unrealistic to exclude it. Writers even create new swears for fantasy and science fiction worlds. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey contain some particularly amusing examples. If you’re a fantasy/science fiction writer, I suggest getting creative like they did. Not only will it help your readers immerse into your worlds but it’s fun to make up your own swear words.

Now, I only have an opinion on swearing in fiction. I have no clue as to what role cussing should play in poetry or even nonfiction. Any thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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