Writing Effective Profanity
Profanity is not my cup of tea, though I believe it can serve an author's purpose--but it can be overused.
Language is language, and it exists to communicate experience. The fact is, I write young adult fiction, and the lexicon for this target age group can include every curse under the sun. Not every person chooses to use these words, of course, but cursing is a part of the human experience, and therefore it can bring realism to a written work.
So, when is it appropriate to use profanity in literature?
Let’s start with where it is not.
I have read many books that are peppered with curses—especially those aimed at a young adult audience—because the authors are attempting to capture casual speech, “cool” characters, or an edgy atmosphere. And, if applied in moderation, such an approach can work! However, if a character is swearing every other sentence, that dialogue tic is not necessarily establishing their character; instead, it runs the risk of establishing a caricature.
It’s true that casual dialogue often includes profanity. But casual dialogue also includes “ums” and “likes” and filler words, and if you listen closely to a conversation, you’ll notice that in many ways, it’s repetitive. If one wrote a real conversation verbatim, it would be critiqued as bad dialogue, because real speech doesn’t actually translate very well to written form. In creating their dialogue sequences, or internal monologues, many authors will cut the filler and streamline the conversation… but leave the profanity just the way it is. The result is that, proportionally, there’s too much cursing. It feels stilted and false, and can come across like the speaker—or the author—is trying too hard. Too much profanity can force the reader out of the reading headspace, negating its intended impact.
However, there is a right way to go about it. Profanity makes a point. It can be powerful. It delivers a punch when a pure, innocent character is confronted with a challenge that makes them say “fuck.” But that power, like a drug, loses its potency through constant use, and the reader can become numb, or even get worn down by the constant coarseness.
If a character doesn’t usually swear, try to think of a situation where they would—because being pressed to the point of compromising one’s own morals is one of the best worst things an author can do to a character.
If a character is intended to be foulmouthed, try using occasional profanity—more than the other characters, but not nearly as much as the character might actually say in real life. This also applies to unprofessional environments or rough settings.
Make sure that not all of your characters swear, or swear the same amount, or the same way, because dialogue should be unique and indicative of personality. You don’t want everyone to sound the same. Use profanity with moderation, and when you use it, mean it.
When used poorly, profanity can be excessively coarse, make characters sound false, and discourage readers. When it’s used effectively, however, profanity can help articulate characters, set a scene, or expose emotion and energy.
E.G. RADCLIFF IS AN INCURABLE WRITER and lifelong imaginer of worlds. An insatiable reader and researcher with a penchant for all things Celtic and a love of the mysterious and magical, she brings a knowing touch to her Young Adult fiction.
She enjoys adventure, reading on the train, and dreams about flying.
She is a Chicago native and is based in Illinois.