Thursday, November 1, 2012

Swearing in YA Fiction - Authentic? Or Gratuitous?

I've avoided writing this blog for a while because it's another one of those subjects people tend to feel quite strongly about. But the issue has risen (again) in my current WIP, so I'm ready for some dialogue (no pun intended).

Here's the down and dirty: Teenagers often swear. Lots of teenagers swear a lot. It seems to me, if we're depicting teenagers in a contemporary society, swearing isn't just likely, it's actually hard to avoid.


Hmmm.... I'm not so sure.

Don't get me wrong, I know swearing is a part of daily life for teenagers, even if they choose not to do it themselves. But the question I keep asking myself is, do I need to add to the cacophony?

The reality is, there's so much out there that kids have to deal with, so much they have to filter and figure out, do they really need one more book adding to that picture? Does swearing add authenticity? Or does it just lean on uneducated tropes?

For me as an author, the battle is how to effectively communicate anger, frustration and (to a certain degree) surprise in teenagers without dropping f-bombs or jumping on the beeyotch train.

And there's another layer to this debate that I haven't seen addressed at all: One person's swear-word is another person's fluff.

I've grown up travelling between (and learning how to communicate in) two very different english speaking cultures. There are words I can say in New Zealand without blinking that would have my American family reaching for the smelling salts. And there are words I could say in America that would be laughed at, where most New Zealander's would take offence.

This is because culturally the impacts of the words are different.

So, if I'm being careful with my language, where do I draw the line? Which country's vernacular is acceptable? What level of swearing denotes authenticity, and what level is simply gratuitous?

Of course, there are always the phrases Carl swore under his breath. A happy medium, if you will. And effective. But not always applicable - especially in a passage of actual dialogue.

I usually find myself typing swear words in my first drafts, then removing them later, either with something I deem more clever, or just deleting it altogether. At this point my goal is not to add to the cacophony. But that's because I don't swear in day-to-day life. Ergo, I choose not to write them, either.

Is avoiding the issue akin to pretending it doesn't exist?

At what point am I giving the finger to the good manners my mother taught me? And at what point am I disappointing readers by failing to accurately depict their world?

The mind boggles.

I don't want to spark off a moral debate, but let's be honest, our opinions on this type of issue tend to fall fairly closely in line with our personal choices.

As an author, is it my job to "sink" to the level of the sixteen year old who'll read my book? Or is it my job to show them (without preaching) that there's another way to do this?

Or is it both?

Okay, cyberspace, I'm ready to hear what you have to say. But this blog is still PG rated, so please refrain from using actual examples, if possible.

Your Turn: Should contemporary YA books include swearing? Why? Or why not?


  1. I cheated with this issue in my YA book. It was paranormal though and the main character's inability to successful swear was actually a plot point.

    Swearing in YA book is best as a spice, a small amount does wonders.

    Here's the thing. I've often heard people say that they need a lot of swearing to reflect the reality of a lot of modern teens or else the books won't resonate with their intended readers, et cetera.

    I'm sympathetic to that idea, and certainly don't believe that one should have NO swearing under any circumstances, but at the same time, a survey of many genres of "adult" literature indicate that that the speech patterns reflected in those books don't fully reflect the reality and that people are actually swearing a fraction of the percentage (if directly rendered) that many people actually swear.

    When I served in the military, I knew tons of people who liked Tom Clancy. There are many military characters in Tom Clancy books. They do not swear even 1% as much as the typical Solider, Sailor, Airman, and Marine does. I've seen similiar things in many military-themed novels I've read. I went into the service pretty much never swearing, and I came out quite foul-mouthed. Yet I never heard a military Clancy fan say, "Man, I can't relate to this book because this staff sergeant isn't spewing out f-bombs every two seconds."

    I don't buy that YA readers are so locked into a view point that if the dialog doesn't parallel the typical YA reader's daily profanity, they'll be that annoyed.

    Novels, by their nature, are artifice. They don't need to be an exact reflection of reality to get their point across.

    I'm not particularly persuaded of the cultural value of running full steam toward coarsening the culture under the guise of that being the only way people will engage with a book.

    For me, it's less about morality than it is about aesthetics. If, I suppose, someone could render their cursing in a particularly creative way, that's one thing, but just peppering every other word with profanity comes off in writing as monotonous.

    It's simply not true.

    Now, like I said, a little spice can do wonders, especially to highlight things.

    Also note that, for the most part, that due to our moving and television rating systems*, that the movies and shows primarily targeted at teens do not, in many cases, reflect the level of casual profanity that many teens use, yet these still tend to find audiences, be profitable, et cetera.

    I also, think, that it's just not a good idea to try and fake it and make up swear words unless there's some compelling internal setting reason. That draws attention to the artifice of avoidance in a bizarre way that can, I think, alienate readers.

    So, throw me down, in the end for the "small amount here and there to highlight" along with the occasional verb reference or whatever, as appropriate, I guess.

    *And no, I'm most definitely not even trying to hint that we should have book rating systems. I eek at the very thought.

    1. Lots of great food for thought there! Thanks! Chewing especially hard on the tv / movie rating nugget. Good point!

  2. It really depends upon what your aim is. If you're trying to accurately depict teen life, that's the point of your work, to reflect that world, leaving it out is akin to a lie and makes what you're doing not work.
    If you're depicting a "fantasy" (not necessarily fantasy, the genre), then it's really up to you. No one will question its not being there. Like in Harry Potter. You have to decide what your goal is and base your language on that.

    To add another wrinkle, though, some recent studies show that we (and especially teens) attach to literary characters the same way we attach to our friends, so, if a character swears, it is more likely for a kid reading about that character to also swear. Basically, they become role models.

    1. Ah, yes. The role model dilemma. Another good angle to consider. Thank you!

  3. I think that this question is framed incorrectly. To group teens into one box that has "swearing" written on it ignores their socio intellectual upbringing. I've noticed that some kids who come from homes where education is paramount do not swear. Others who are from homes where they are allowed to skip school, where there is little discipline, and usually where money is extremely tight or perhaps where a parent uses casual drugs encourages swearing.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Michael. I agree that you can't bunch teens into one category. But, as I stated above, even those teens who choose not to swear themselves, can't really avoid coming in contact with it - usually daily.

  5. I honestly think it depends on the character. If it's someone who would plausibly drop the f-bomb every third sentence, then fine. If it's someone who never swears until they get scared or angry and then lets it rip, that's fine. If swearing is a conscious decision about character, then it's not gratuitous.

    However, if you personally feel uncomfortable swearing, then you certainly don't have to write curse words into your stories.

    Also -- I never understand this "Is swearing in YA ok?" question. Notice how no one ever asks if swearing in adult novels is OK??? Like once they hit 18 they've got a free pass to swear the air blue? Why are we so freaked out by young people swearing, as just opposed to swearing in general? It seems a bit hypocritical sometimes...

    1. I'm not sure about others, but my concern is in affecting young, still developing minds and hearts. I don't consider an eighteen year old an adult. The concept that a birthday makes you grow up is ludicrous to me. But I know that the vast majority of my audience is / will be teenagers: people who don't yet know themselves, who are trying to understand their world, and who are thinking about (and experiencing) very adult issues. As a mother, I care about what I add to that picture for children. And yes I say "children", because although adult teenagers do exist, they are few and far between. I want to help kids find their way in the world. Not add to the weight they are carrying... (So ends manifesto...)

    2. I think you can do that without necessarily sending the message that swearing is ok. I'm not sure people give kids enough credit for knowing what is "good" vs. "bad," including swearing. Hence why most teenagers swear in front of friends, but not authority figures. They do know when it's more appropriate vs. offensive. As they grow, kids also develop their own personal language, which may or may not include curse words. They also tend to "try out" swearing as a form of rebellion...which soon loses its novelty.

      I guess my opinion is that even if you don't write books with swears, there are plenty out there available to the YA audience. And that's OK. Sometimes they need to read examples of different options when it comes to expressing yourself. Chances are that if they're so sheltered they've never heard the f-bomb in their life, they'll put the book down and pick up something more to their tastes. It depends on what audience you're thinking of, I suppose.

  6. I think this is one area that has lots of correct answers because of how the audience is used to receiving it. Using the TV/movie analogy, the audience understands the ratings and they accept when they watch something on the networks that the swearing is going to be edited out. They don't fault the rest of the story for that one point of non-reality. When they go to a movie that's rated R they expect to get a realistic dose of swearing (and other stuff).

    Since the audience is conditioned to accept either choice (swearing or not), they don't really fault you for whichever route you go. But they will expect consistency - if you do include swearing they will also expect everything to be a little more realistic and gritty (think sex scenes). If you clean it up with the literary equivalent of bleeping ('he swore under his breath') then it will be out of place if things like sex and violence are described in detail. Pick a rating for your book and try to stick with that across the board and you'll be fine.

  7. Amazing post Aimee! I struggle with the same questions you posted. I have enjoyed reading all of these comments... I learned a lot from everyone! Thanks!

  8. I was just reading a Hemingway novel and instead of swear words, he actually wrote the word 'unprintable' into his dialogue. Quite a hilarious effect, once you realize what 'unprintable' means.

    Anyway, I don't write YA, but I debate about swearing even in adult fiction. I tend to think that if it is absolutely essential to the background/personality of a given character, then you can use it enough to make the reader notice the speech pattern.

    On the other hand, I personally find that while reading, I don't necessarily WANT to be skimming over horrible language every second. It doesn't really bother me in dialogue for a movie, perhaps because when spoken it just slides over the head, but in reading, you really notice what's printed. It sinks in more. Thus I think that a little goes a very long way and creates a strong enough effect. No need to be heavy-handed, especially when writing for teenagers. I know from teaching them that they absorb things very easily, after all!

  9. In Ireland, we swear a lot. Words which would be banned on television are just a part of everyday speech. We're not even particularly emotional or angry when we do it. It just rolls off our toungues.

    Now that said, I'm very picky about swearing, especially in my own writing. I have a bad habit of being too wordy, so I have to be careful not to avoid using words that don't add anything. I use swearing, but every swear word I use is there to have a specific impact. Otherwise it's just gratuitous.

    I think a lot of people, writers and readers alike, make the mistake of thinking an abundance of swearing makes something gritty and edgy. Take the tv series Deadwood. I've never seen writers use swearing as such a crutch before, and I got bored of it after the first scene. Which is a shame because I love Timothy Olyphant.

    I don't think YA should shirk from showing profanity, but it should be treated as what it is: A narrative tool. And like any tool, if you use it too much, it wears out.

  10. I think random swearing just to make a character seem believable or realistic is unnecessary. However, if a character is truly going through something tough and swears in dialogue but later we see a change in them, that's okay. I just think teens need to see some ideals to emmulate, not just the average swearing teen. I tried to do that in my ya urban fantasy Shalow Eyes.

  11. I write YA and I wrestled with this for a while (also in relation to sex and violence).

    The stance I landed on is that if I felt uncomfortable with my mom/grandmother reading the content (doesn't matter that I'm no longer 16) or if I wouldn't want my (future) 16 year old to read it, I stayed away from that particular swear word, sex scene, or violent action.

    It came down to a personal preference for me.

  12. I think your comment about cultural differences is hugely important, and "cultural" does not equate with "national", it can be very personal, too.

    I am amazed at how much (what I would consider) blasphemy is in so much American TV and books for YA, even in those that would balk at saying 'hell' or 'bitch'. It's like saying "Oh my God", or "Jesus Christ" as a curse is nothing, perfectly acceptable. It throws me right out of the story. I would really (truly) rather my own children used the F-word than these phrases.(It's also a personal peeve that it's only ever the Christian God/s that are used as swear words.)

    Another word whose US use baffles me is "douche" or "douchebag". Perfectly respectable teens and smart ladies toss it out like it's nothing. Do they know what a douchebag is??? I find it jarring, and (personal culture again) offensive, because I think it links into the misogynism so prevalent in our culture. Woman, goes the unspoken thought, are dirty. THey need cleaning even on the inside, and then the cleaning thing, because it has touched them on their 'dirty parts' becomes a dirty, awful thing, a swearword.

    In my new MS, I'm allowing a small modicum of swearing. I'll see if it survives the @#%$!!! editing!

    1. I always thought "douche" used as a swear word meant "stupid" or "useless" because it is a ridiculous, unnecessary thing.

    2. I'm sure the original use was misogynistic; revolving around the idea of 'gross lady-parts'. However, I frequently see the definition serenitywriter used and I agree with it.

      Douche seem fitting to be used when when someone is emulating the characteristics of a literal one, that is being essentially useless and/or causing more harm than good. In this sense the insult becomes anti-misogynistic.

  13. I think my job as an author is to tell a story. One of my characters does swear, but so far I've limited it. It is after all, only one facet of who she is. I'd say by using no swear words that it would stand out because it's unrealistic for most, and I want my readers to relate to being a teen, and using cuss words when the adults aren't around. Another character absolutely would never say such words, until she snaps and says a modest swear word, which jolts those who know her best.
    Just by the fact that swear words still hold so much cache ... kids aren't allowed to say them, there's still censoring, that they can be an excellent tool.
    As for the fact that swear words change from country and region, that would depend on where the story is, or where the character is from. If you mean how will a publisher write swear words when printing your story in another language, I'm sure it will be understood, or they'll change it. And of course, the "F" word is global, so no worries there.
    If I was writing a story in a juvi center or a prison, there would be a lot of swearing. Even the guards swear, sometimes more than the inmates. Soldiers often swear. The swearing doesn't bother me much.