I really have never addressed this topic. It is funny that I have not talked about it since I quite simply love to curse. There is little else that makes certain type of point than a well placed “fuck” or a perfectly timed “bullshit.” And in the work I do, I am certainly well adjusted to hearing swear words, including some very nasty ones directed at me personally.
So when it came to swearing in writing, I never really gave in much thought. I like to write stories with believable characters, and we live in a world where people curse. But when it comes to telling a story, cursing can be off putting to some readers, and there has to be a balance. There are many things to consider when you type that first swear in your fiction. Let’s take a look at some:
Who is this book intended for? It might be most obvious to eliminate, or at the least tone down, cursing in a Young Adult novel. You will likely have none in Middle Grade. And I am certain your children’s book will be swear free. But it is more then just the category of your novel. Are you writing to diehard Sci-Fi readers? Grandmas? Church goers? Parents of young kids? Military readers? and on and on. Each of these needs a consideration as well. If this group of readers will be easily offended by the content of your novel, including swearing, you either need to change your audience or remove the words.
Is it Fitting?
Does the curse words fit the story, the world, and the context it is used in? If you are writing a book about an alien world who have never met humans, I highly doubt they would use the word “shit” in any way. If you are writing about a character that is getting shot at, I can almost be certain they will swear. If you are writing a military or police novel, they swear. Do they all swear? No. But I’ve been around enough of both to know that when things get ugly, a swear might slip out. You have to find out if the swear belongs in the world, the environment, and the type of story you are telling.
I touched on this a bit above. If you are writing about the military, there may be curse words. But if your Main Character is a very mild mannered person who was drafted into the army, s/he might not be prone to swearing. If you are writing about a priest who is trying to help a teenager get out of a bad situation, he is unlikely to swear. But then again, he might slip in a minor curse word if the teenager has just pushed the priest too far. Or the priest feels that is the only way to get through to the kid. Think about each of your characters. As you are developing your character, did you ever think of them as the type to swear a lot? If not, then it might be best to leave them out. Consider the character’s background. Growing up rich with a lot of servants and proper etiquette might yield a different swear result than the inner-city bully.
To some the word “fuck” is vulgar in itself. I am sure if that is the case they stopped reading my blog a long time ago. But to others, the way it is used determines the level of vulgarity. There is a big difference between yelling out “fuck” in an adrenaline rush situation and saying you will “fuck” someone. The vulgarity of the use of a swear ties in to the character, the suitability of the use, and your target audience. I swear a lot, but there are certain words, when used a certain way, that even I take offense to. In the end if you are going for shock value, it should be removed. Shocking your audience in a vulgar way, will likely knock them right out of your story. Sometimes to the point they won’t keep reading.
Is the word distracting/excessive?
When you read the text, is the word distracting to the action? Do you, or your beta readers, seem to notice the word more than the actions of the overall scene? If so, it probably doesn’t belong. Have your characters done nothing but curse the entire novel? If so, you may be taking away from the character and that will only hurt the story. The most obvious test is if you notice. The second test will come from beta readers.
Excessive is hard to define. You can’t say that a certain number of curse words is the limit in any novel. You have to test it with a sample audience, the beta readers. See what they say. See what your editor says. Consider all of it to decide if it works for your novel. In Dissolution of Peace, we have a military setting, with aggressive and stressed out characters, in a world on the brink of war. I can tell you that there is cursing in the novel. My friend asked me if the novel would be appropriate for a 14 and 9 year old. Before I could message him back and say, “Probably not.” He told me that he searched the novel. The word “Fuck” came up fifteen times and “shit” twenty plus times. When I first saw that, I was surprised. I hadn’t thought it was so much. And that really does seem like a lot. But not one beta readers, or my editor, made a single comment on the cursing. The fact that neither myself or my beta readers noticed proves the fact that it is not excessive.
Of course, others might consider it very excessive. That goes back to audience. So far, in both editorial reviews and customer reviews, there has been no mention of the cursing. So far, it seems, that no one considers it excessive. As I go back and read the novel, the curse words fit the situations they are used in. You almost don’t notice them.
To curse or not to curse. The debate.
Curse words are a big debate in the writing community. I’ve not noticed forum discussion on the topic that did not have strong opinions on both sides of the debate. Many have argued that if the right way to use a curse word is to leave it unnoticed, than what it the point of using it anyway? I often argue that sometimes not using a curse word can be more distracting. I read a detective novel, very well written, but I just couldn’t see this detective yelling out “dang!” when he got shot at. To me that was deliberate censorship and it stood out far more than a “shit” or a “damn it” would have. If the author was against cursing, simply leaving it off might have been better.
And that sort of sums up the use of curse words in a novel. They will never make or break a story. I’ve seen excellent novels based in various settings that both use and didn’t use curse words. But even in those that used the curse words, it wasn’t the curse words you remembered. You remembered the story. Curse words are like many other character and story accents. If used correctly, no one will remember them but they will love your characters and story.
Swears are a lot like sex scenes. In many cases the story will work just fine without either. So the choice is entirely up to the author. But when used correctly, swears are no big deal either. Only the writer can decide if they belong or not.