Profanity in Genre Fiction

Nat Russo Basics, Fantasy, Writing 57 Comments

I answer many questions on Twitter and Facebook on all aspects of writing. The most common question lately is “Should I use profanity in my writing?” The answer is simple:

It depends.

The question itself, however, is telling.

Why Do People Swear?

I doubt I’ll cover new territory here. People swear because profanity is emotionally charged. It can express anger, frustration, fear, sadness, pain, despair, joy, violence, ignorance, racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, you name it, and sometimes all of those with a single word. Nothing gets people’s attention quite like an appropriately timed swear word. And few things are as entertaining as a person who has raised the use of profanity to an art form.
 
Yes, I know you might disagree with those statements. And I don’t give a $#%^. See what I mean? I could have kept it G-rated and said something like “I know you might disagree, but I respectfully submit that I have my own opinion on the topic.” A perfectly valid response.
 
But it wouldn’t have reached down and grabbed you by the … now would it? Of course not. When you read the profanity, even though it was “bleeped” out, your mind supplied the details. And in that moment of time you had a visceral reaction, either positive or negative depending on your personality. But you had a reaction.
 
Like I said, nothing ground breaking. Just a prelude to the answer you really came here for today.
 

Should I Use Profanity In My Writing?

I mentioned earlier that this question was “telling”. What I meant was the question reveals more about the writer than the writing. What does it reveal?
 
It tells me that you’re worried about how others will perceive you personally when they read your work.
 
Am I close? You don’t have to answer if you’re not comfortable. Just read on a bit.
 
Writing is the process of taking a piece of ourselves and putting it out there for the world to see. It doesn’t matter whether we’re writing literary fiction or genre fiction, every character, setting, plot, and subplot reveals something about who we are.

Let me give you a glimpse into your future as a writer: 

There will never come a day in your career when you’re not afraid of what you’re writing.

Re-read that if you have to. I’ll wait. Back? Ok. 

Every word we write invites judgement, criticism, commentary, perhaps even introspection. We may write something that surprises us…and leads us to question where it came from.

Here’s a secret about writers: we’re a real self-conscious bunch of people, and we’re scared to death of rejection. But if you filter every word you type through the perceptions of your mother, father, siblings, spouses, partners, neighbors, church friends, and pets, your career will be over before it begins. You may come up with a great plot, or interesting character concepts, but something…that special something…will always be missing. 

 
That special something is “Voice”.
 
I could write an entire article, if not series of articles, on voice alone (ooh, there’s an idea!). And people with more impressive bona fides have written entire books on the subject. So let me cut to the chase. Voice is the essence of your characters (or narrator, if you’re in a pure 3rd person omniscient). Voice is who they are. Voice is who you are as the writer. And if you’re not true to that voice, the reader will smell you coming a mile away. You’ll smell like a fake covered in fake sauce and baked in an easy-fake oven.
 
“But Nat,” you say. “My question was should I use profanity in my writing, and you haven’t answered it!”
 
To which I reply, “Because you’re asking the wrong person, dingus! You need to ask your character!”
 
Whoa, what?
 
You heard me! The person with the answer to that question is your character. 

If you have some time, take a look at How Do You Find Your Character’s Voice. It’s an article I wrote a few months back about a technique I’m fond of using. It hasn’t failed me yet. Nor has it failed prolific writers such as James Scott Bell or Orson Scott Card (irony alert: See below as to why vigorously avoiding profanity works for Card but may not work for you). If your character is a foul-mouthed, drinking, whoring sailor and he never utters any profanity…well…that’s the first foul-mouthed, drinking, whoring sailor I’ve ever known to do so. …In general. Yes, being prim and proper might be that character’s shtick, but you get what I mean. 

 
If your hackles are rising, fear not. I understand and I’ve got you covered. Take a moment to read on to the next section.
 

Important Considerations

Yes, as a writer you need to be true to yourself. Yes, as a writer you need to be true to your characters and voice. But don’t forget the other people you need to be true to:
  1. Your Audience/Genre – If you forget who your audience is, for a single sentence or word, you will have lost them. If your audience demands a lack of profanity, then you had better not allow profanity to slip into your work. Not unless you’re OK with alienating the very people you’re trying to reach.
  2. Your Editor – Your editor wants you to succeed. Your editor wants you…needs you…to sell books. You ignore your editor’s advice at your own peril.
  3. Yourself – I know I’ve said this before, but I repeat it here for a different reason. Remember my mention of Orson Scott Card above? If profanity is something that you are personally uncomfortable with then you will sound fake if you try to use it, regardless of the character in question. In fact, if a lack of profanity is one of your defining personal characteristics, then your characters will sound fake if you use it. Because, after all, your characters are nothing more than an extension of yourself. And an audience can smell a fake a mile away. Be true to yourself, whether that means using profanity or avoiding it.
I’m not here to tell you the world is going to smell like roses after you write something that raises people’s eyebrows. Especially if those eyebrows belong to people who are closely related to you, or who travel in social groups that are important to you. But you didn’t become a writer to fit in, did you? I hope not.
 
Your writing has a chance to entertain, move, and bring people together. It has a chance to shine a light on topics you care about in ways other writers have not. But yes, it also has a chance to alienate you. There’s a chance your writing will be considered so offensive that society wants nothing to do with you. It’s doubtful it’ll get that bad for you, but writing is taking a risk. Every time you put pen to paper you’re stripping down and getting naked in front of the world. There’s never going to be a time where you don’t question, at least once, “should I have written that?”
 
You’re a writer. Welcome aboard the crazy train. I’d ask where you’re going, but we all know this train doesn’t stop. Come meet me in the lounge car with the rest of the crazies and we’ll commiserate. 
 
In a future article, in my World Building series, I’ll discuss how to craft profanity for your fantasy or science fiction worlds. (Yes, there’s a technique for this too! I developed a system of profanity in Necromancer Awakening, my bestselling dark fantasy.)
 
So what’s your take on all this BS? Leave me a comment and let’s get the discussion started!

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 57

  1. You’re absolutely right. Sometimes I cringe writing in my characters’ voices because I do not typically use profanity, especially when describing certain body parts. However, men speak differently than women and people from diverse walks of life will always vary.

    1. That’s so true. And what’s cringe-worthy to one age group or subculture is perfectly acceptable to another! Profanity, like other aspects of language, takes a lot of practice to perfect. …At least that’s what I tell my wife when she catches me swearing around the house 🙂

  2. This article is spot on. In my latest work, the mc dropped an f bomb once at the very end, due to his shock. I think by placement it illustrates the duress of the situation he finds himself in. 🙂

  3. Hi, Nat, I saw this post over at the Paranormal & Dark Fantasy Writers & Readers FB group. Thanks for sharing. This topic is a concern for me. As a Christian, I’m concerned with the things I write. I do write horror, however. I usually go for that middle ground, hoping to bridge the best of both worlds. On the other hand I don’t necessarily market myself as a Christian author. It’s a tough place to be sometimes when you’re dealing with dark themes. On the other hand, it can be very exciting and ground-breaking. Basically I try and be true to the characters, as you rightly point out.

    -Jimmy
    http://jamesgarciajr.blogspot.com/

    1. Thanks for responding, James. You’re right, it can be a tricky tightrope to walk! I think you’re doing the right thing. As long as you’re staying true to your voice, and staying true to your characters, you’ll do great.

      And remember, you’ll always be far more critical of your work than anyone else will be. Your Christians friends who read your work don’t exist in reality the way they exist in your mind. Many of them won’t give it a second thought if they see some profanity. Put them in a church environment and ask them to comment on it, however, and you’ll get the standard canned response 🙂 (Speaking as a former seminarian on the path to becoming a Catholic priest).

  4. You nailed it ! The character’s personality and the scene dictate where profanity belongs. There are other factors that can influence the use of it, though. For example, my recent contract for a YA series has stipulations from the publisher that there is to be an absolute minimum on foul language, due to the target audience being tween/teens. ( Although, some of the language I’ve overheard from some teens certainly peeled the paint )

    Specific to you column, though, you are right on the money. Those characters can practically write the book for you if you let them.

    1. The audience is definitely a huge factor to consider. I tend towards dark and gritty in my fantasy, and I often have seedy characters involved, so I’m shooting for an older audience (yet to be seen if I’ll hit the target).

      One of the things I do is construct a “profanity system”, for lack of better words, that is grounded in my milieu. I don’t overdo it, as that sort of thing bothers me as a reader. But I’ve found that most profanity falls into a discrete set of categories. I intend to write an article about it in the near future.

  5. I think of profanity as kin to the exclamation point – best used sparingly and for a specific reason.

    As a reader, I am personally turned off by foul-mouthed characters, but I appreciate that we all reach a breaking point somewhere along the line … especially when confronted with extreme situations.

    1. I agree with this, but I like to err on the side of being true to how a character would react. That being said, there’s often far more profanity in my first drafts than what I eventually leave in. I like to “write hot, edit cool”, so to speak.

  6. Good article. I walk the same tightrope that James does, being a Christian but not being a “Christian writer.” I rarely swear, but I’ve written characters who do. I have one character who’s ex military in a post apocalypse setting and “darn it,” just doesn’t cut it. My strategy is to only use swear words where I feel like I’m being untrue to the character by using anything else and to try and use the least offensive word that still rings true to their personality.

    1. Thanks!

      I find that when I write my initial draft (write hot / edit cold) certain characters use a lot more profanity than what makes it into the final manuscript. I often tone things down considerably in revision.

  7. When I was 14, no sentence was complete without an F-bomb. Now I flinch when I hear them. But I digress.

    Truly profound, especially the bit about being afraid of everything you write if you’re asking other people. My books are basically amped-up cozies. The curses are generally mild, except in in extreme circumstances. I’m comfortable with that. I might offend the occasional reader, but F-them if they can’t take a joke 😉

  8. This article was timely for me. I recently needed a kick in the breeches over my Ulster Scots characters’ profanity. It was so fun to write things like, “Holy Jaysus, look at the size of yon river,” but the truth is, such language would be a no-no for my 18th c. Presbyterians. Letting go of the cussing was hard. I salved my writer’s soul by cussing out loud while I hit the delete key. Seemed the thing to do.

    1. Have to say, I kind of like the “Holy Jaysus” line 🙂

      In the fantasy genre I’m always struggling over which forms of modern profanity are acceptable and which forms pull the reader out of the story. It’s a fine line to walk sometimes. I’m outlining an article (in my world building series) on creating profanity for genre fiction…but at this point I’m not sure if it will see the light of day. I keep going back and forth on whether it’s even a good idea.

  9. This is appropriately timed. I’m working on editing a first draft. I have a bit of a potty mouth so my first drafts are always filled with almost place holder swear words. I’m working on a YA/NA MS right now so all the swearing’s gotta go. I usually just go with the “he cursed” solution when I want to convey the feeling of swearing.

    1. I think that’s a good solution, Mary. It’s always very important to keep your intended audience in mind. But I also like how you don’t edit yourself in your first drafts. That’s great! Just let the words flow and fix it later.

  10. I use a lot of profanity in my writing because just about everyone I know and talk to cusses like a sailor. Dialogue tends to reflect what feels right and true to the writer, and what the writer hears a lot. Also, my characters tend to find themselves in situations for which the only logical response is “OH FFFF–“

  11. It can also vary with the same character. My MC gets in a fight with schoolyard bullies at 13, then he has trouble again with fighting at 17. Does that kid swear? You bet, and so do the others. When he’s 33 and speaking with his wife’s elderly grandmother? Absolutely not. Knowing the difference goes a lot way toward making it realistic, and it can really help with character development.

  12. Thank you! This made me laugh and encouraged me to swear! I don’t have a problem with ‘language’ in my writing, when it seems true to the characters in my novels (though my approach tends to be ‘less is more’), just when my aged relatives want to read them.

  13. I have been around a long time and have met very few individuals who, at one time or another, have not uttered a word of profanity. In these times, even women and girls, who did not usually use profanity in the “old” days, are now using it regularly. But as far as my writing goes, who cares? The language I use in dialogue helps to define my characters, and if the readers don’t like it, well, that’s the way it goes. I write novels about people who could be your next-door neighbors who become involved in situations your neighbors may never be, and they talk the way real people might talk. Most do not curse the way the actors do in the grade B movies about cops and drug dealers that are flooding the market these days, but very few do not ever utter a “hell” or a “damn”. I am not writing to appeal to a certain market — I’m writing because I enjoy creating characters and telling a good story. If the audience does not like what I write, the book won’t sell, but the motivation for writing comes from within — the marketing comes in a distant second.

    1. Excellent points, David. It’s very much a characterization issue for me. If my character demands the use of profanity, then so be it. I’m a firm believer that all stories will eventually find their audience.

  14. Great post – This is something I worried about a bit with my novel when I was shopping it around. It is on the border of YA (maybe NA as far as age range but not content) and while you see profanity more and more often, YA books usually don’t seem to have much (because, I guess, teenagers don’t cuss…) When I decided to go the self-publishing route, I freed myself from some of the typical restrictions. The MC in my book is a 19 year old boy, the powerless son of the world’s greatest superhero who’s been sequestered in his Dad’s fortress of solitude for nearly two years. He’s snarky, restless, depressed, a bit emotionally immature and he definitely cusses. He relies on that kind of language and snark less and less as the book goes on and he has to face his father’s world alone. His language, how he reacts to situations are all part of his development.

  15. I agree with all of this, very well put. Because I write Young & New Adult stories I’ve been a little wary of using too much profanity so between my two love interests there’s very little at all. However, when my male MC is with his brother, and they’re being blokey-blokes, there are definitely a few F-bombs dropped.

  16. I see no problem with using profanity when it is appropriate to the character and the situation. I also have no issue with using actual curse words. Why? I see no reason to supplant perfectly good Anglo-Saxon for profanity of my own devising.

    1. Your approach will work in 99% of cases, and it’s a great approach. But there are some milieus where Anglo-Saxon isn’t going to cut it. It will jar the readers ear and seem anachronistic. If anachronism is what you’re going for, that’s one thing. If you’re not, however, then there’s a problem.

  17. I love this post. Everything you said is so true. I watch my language around most people. I’m considered nice. I suppose there are some who will be a bit shocked by my not so well behaved characters and their occasional crude words and even the way they see the world. They are not me and yet, as you pointed out, they all come from my mind and everyone who reads it will know that. Not sure I appreciate the reminder. Ha. Ha.

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      Haha 🙂

      The secret is that the very people who will criticize your misbehaving characters and their deplorable world views harbor the very same unspoken, subconscious secrets themselves. As writers, we’ve just embraced the fact that we’re going to let it all out into the open to play with the neighbor’s kids.

  18. Pingback: The Basics: So You Want To Write A Novel - A Writer's Journey

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      Author

      You’ll definitely draw some ire either way. I tend to use lowercase as well, because my writing typically takes place in a fantasy world, and I need some visual indicator that my characters are not referring to “the God of Abraham”, so to speak.

      I get messages every day from writers who read this article and argue that there is *never* a justifiable reason to use profanity in our writing. I just don’t get it. “Polite” society is a myth, in my opinion.

      The seminary was an eye-opening experience for me as a 21-year old kid. The Benedictine monks were some of the holiest men I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, but many of them could cuss like sailors on a 24-hour shore leave. They taught me early on that true morality has very little to do with many of the things the average person attributes moral value to. It was an invaluable lesson.

  19. Swearing is like sex. Not every work needs to illustrate the sex act, and not every work needs explicit language. I submit all my work under a pseudonym anyway, so I could write explicitly, but so far have not as I’m aiming at a general audience, adult but not sensationalist. In a long novel WIP there are a couple of the old-fashioned Saxon expletives, at singular moments. I agree w/an earlier comment, they are in general fiction best used to denote moments of extreme stress.. The rest are ‘developed’ curses – referring to horrific persons or events in the milieu (scifi, far future) and are used for those characters who are a bit saltier than most. That serves for authenticity without turning off some readers. For specific audiences I think the language can and should adapt.

  20. Part of my world building has involved developing and refining my characters’ profanity. My world is gritty, and there’s no reason that my characters, as human beings, would abstain from swearing. What’s important though is that – like a system of magic – they swear consistently within the world and culture. This results in some using words from non-real dialects (Lunar Pidgin is fun to write) being used in place of more conventional oaths.

    It’s gotta be like your article on magic though. If characters swear, it has to be by a certain set of rules that cannot be broken!

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  21. I can cuss with the best of them. I try to monitor myself based on the audience I’m writing to, but sometimes I let it slip. If I do, then usually it comes out a few more times. Before you know it, I’m cussing up a shitstorm. Then FFS I’ve devolved into full-on fuckness and I can’t salvage anything good from the mess I made.

    You feel me Nat?

    Just found your blog, will be perusing a bit to see what you might have in store for me here. Cheers man!

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  22. Thanks Nat! I was having some concerns, since my characters in a murder mystery are more than likely prone to using profanity when I am not. I had thought of developing a “language” to get the point across, but without the actual offensive words. I’ll see what happens with my revision. As a promoter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I’m concerned about what my audience thinks, but I allowed my characters to write the story and for the most part, it’s a good one.

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      I definitely know that concern, Mary! As a former seminarian, I have a lot of friends who are priests today, as well as their parishioners and families. My own family reads my work, for that matter, including my 14-year old son. I think everyone at my day job has a copy of Necromancer Awakening, in fact.

      It’s a common fear among writers that people will judge them personally for the things their characters say. I can understand why, too. How many celebrities are approached on the street as if they are the character they play on TV, as opposed to a real person?

      And remember…Jesus’s closest friends were sailors and prostitutes. As an ex-cop and former defense contractor, I’ve known my share of both. They taught me words I hadn’t previously learned in high school, which is saying something. 🙂

  23. Even Card said ‘Swear, or don’t, but don’t make up fake, nonsensical swear words in order to have it both ways.’ I think the example he gave was that no one would use “tanj” — derived from the acronym for “there ain’t no justice” — as a substitute for the ever popular ‘f-word’ because no one would say “there ain’t no justice!” in the same usages. It’s silly. Fake but plausible swear words are another matter, because a fictional culture may not have the same things to swear about/at as we do. A native of Pern saying “Scorch it!” makes sense, because of the culture in that setting. It isn’t silly, but it doesn’t offend the sensibilities of readers who don’t want to see swearing from their OWN culture. Kinda like how Americans don’t react as strongly — if at all — to certain words that are very, very rude to Brits.

    The things people say when they swear can tell a lot about the culture they come from. (Oh, how I miss the old Swearasaurus website — strictly for writing/anthropology reasons, mind you.) If most of their cussing involves references to sex acts, chances are they come from a culture that thinks of sex as bad in some way. A truly atheist culture (fictional, of course — I don’t know of any in the real world) would NOT take the name of any deity in vain. An atheist character who does so is almost certainly from a culture that is mostly religious, or was in the recent past so the old habits are still around.

  24. Wonderful article and great advice! I’ve never been against the use of profanity in my own fiction – when needed of course. I’ve always let the character or general mood of the story dictate when to use swear words or not. I agree profoundly with the importance of being true to yourself in your writing. As you said, if you’re not being true to yourself and are sprinkling profantiy in your work just because, it’ll be obvious that you’re not writing what you REALLY want to write.

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      Absolutely. Honesty in your writing is the critical element, whether you fall on the side of using profanity occasionally, frequently, or never.

  25. There are a lot of f bombs in my novel and I write mature YA. I would never dream of replacing them with something silly like fudge just because I write YA. My characters wouldn’t feel real if they didn’t curse now and then. Teens curse all the time, including girls. But it’s no a profanity fest though, I only use it when the situation calls for it. There are characters that don’t curse at all because it doesn’t go with their personalities. I guess it boils down of you knowing who your characters really are.

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      That’s the core of it! I’m convinced that if you know your characters well enough, you’ll know whether or not they use profanity.

  26. Ah yes, the writer/ character disparity… An example that always occurs to me is how the supposedly foul-mouthed trolls & orcs in The Hobbit use cleaner language than many modern preschoolers :), but on the other hand Tolkien very obviously despised the use of profanities.

  27. “It tells me that you’re worried about how others will perceive you personally when they read your work.”

    This is exactly it. As a writer and a Christian, I have only ever heard the question of this blog post from Christian writers who are dealing with what they consider “dark” material. They cite Ephesians 4:29, which cautions against “corrupt communication.” To them, I would pose a question: is any word inherently evil? If so, what qualifies it as an evil word? It comes down to the user’s intent. I would ask my fellow Christians whether God is more concerned with their actions or their intent.

    Intent, by the way, is the correct answer. Certain actions are prohibited within Christianity (and in other religious and non-religious schools of thought) because they are inherently evil. Murder is evil because you can’t kill somebody with love in your heart. The same goes for theft and adultery. “I love my husband so I’m going to go bang somebody else” just doesn’t work. But words? There is no list of “naughty words” in any sacred religious text I’ve ever read. Why? Because the word itself doesn’t matter; the intent of the speaker matters.

    Write on your convictions, but if you’re a Christian, I would ask this: are you more concerned about what other people will think, or what God will think? If He didn’t provide us with a list of prohibited words, then *all* words have the potential to be useful. The only question a Christian should ask is what God would think of their work. I don’t give a damn what my pastor or my father or my best friend thinks of my word choice in a story if they can’t see the intent of my heart beneath it.

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