Remember when you were little and your mother threatened to wash your mouth out with soap if you said certain “bad” words? I was pretty careful, considering I did not like the taste of Palmolive. Despite the caution that using profanity signals a lack of vocabulary, salty language has found its way into my speech and I wield it on a regular basis. I blame it on my years in the theater.
George Carlin got famous from the seven words you can’t say on television, and writers have to deal with the same thing when they choose to use, abuse, or exclude profanity in their writing. Writers of adult fiction probably don’t have to worry about this so much, because most anything goes in the adult world (although I’m sure some Christian publishers might reject work that dips too heavily into the blue language reservoir). Still this is not an easy decision for many writers, especially those who write for a younger audience.
Why not? Well, because some publishers frown on the use of “curse” words, especially in young adult literature. This is probably where the problem shows up the most. Scholastic, for example, will not carry books in its book fairs (a very lucrative way for writers to make some coin, dammit), that have profanity or questionable themes.
I’ve struggled with this myself since I write primarily young adult fiction. My guideline is usually this: if it’s true to the story and the character, I use it. If not, I don’t. The problem for me is that if I choose at the beginning to exclude profanity in order to possibly find a more acceptable niche, am I dishonoring the characters and their reality? But hang on. I create their reality. So, how could I dishonor it? It makes your mind feel like one of those dream sequences from Inception.
Once I’ve made the decision to plunge into the profanity pool, there’s the question of how much is too much. Some words are accepted more easily than others. For example, “ass” and “crap” don’t seem to bother people; I’ve seen those in middle school books, even. You hear those on Nickelodeon, for goodness sakes!
When you step into the top-tier cuss words, your ‘F’ words and your ‘S’ words, and sometimes even the ripe field of ‘B’ words (you can think of them on your own, right?), people get a bit more timid, especially in young adult fiction. Writers often make the decision to go there or not based on how they think it will affect their publishing options.
Some writers choose the Battlestar Galactica route. They create their own cuss words that sound eerily familiar, yet are not technically profanity. I’m talking about you, “frack.” Since I am a BSG fan, hearing people talk about “fracking” in the context of drilling for natural gas has made me perk up my ears more than once. As far back as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, writers were making up words to cover up profanity (groodies (breasts) and the old in-out-in-out—you can figure that one out).
I am currently flinging bad words all over the place in my book, but not because I’m trying to shock or awe, or destroy my own publishing career. It’s because the story calls for it. My characters are in dire circumstances; in the real world, these circumstances would be met with some serious language befitting the serious consequences. I’ve made a conscious choice to give my characters the words they need to emphasize the gravity of their situations, as most people in the “real” world employ.
What’s your take on using profanity, in life and in writing?