Profanity in YA Fiction?

(There is cursing in this post, and you might want to click away if you’re uncomfortable with that. Instead, click on one of my more family friendly posts, like Susannah A. Martin’s Guest Post: Editing Sucks, or My Favorite New Doctor Who Episodes.)

Since the moment I started writing seriously, I’ve been looking up articles and discussions on whether or not you should included cursing if you’re writing a young adult novel.

This post isn’t about whether or not books with profanity should be banned for schools, because they most definitely shouldn’t. I have yet to see someone supporting the banning of books in schools without sounding like uneducated tool. Case in point: this article.

I’m talking about whether or not you, as a writer, should include profanity in your books. And if you don’t write but love to read, my question for you is: how do you feel about cursing in YA novels (or novels in general)? Some people think they should be completely devoid of all profanity, and some people don’t mind it at all. It’s all about opinion, really, and feel free to offer yours in the comment selection below. (Or don’t. No one’s forcing you to.)

I think when you’re trying to write a story with realistic teenage characters, you need to include profanity. Most teenagers curse, and are surrounded by profanity in school/the internet/etc., and it bugs me when some people try to act like this isn’t true. In fact, I think people who freak out over profanity come across as much more immature than the people saying them.

At the same time, you don’t want to go overboard. If you start to fucking curse in every fucking sentence, it gets fucking repetitive. Sure, there are a lot of people who talk this way in real life, but most people find them annoying. The same is true for fictional characters.

One thing I hate seeing as a reader is cheesy substitutions for curse words, or just bad insults in general. The worst was in The Titan’s Curse, by Rick Riordan, where Percy is called a “Seaweed Brain,” by Thalia, and is offended. (This I could understand, since there was at least a back-story that explained why.) He then retaliated by calling Thalia a “Pinehead,” which actually hurt her feelings. 

I read those lines when I was in the intended age group (fifth or sixth grade, I think), and even I found it cringe-worthy. One other thing I hate is when authors use abbreviations for swear words, which is something The Fifth Wave had a serious problem with.

The Fifth Wave was a strange book. When it came to profanity, it was so inconsistent. In the first few pages, a character calls Cassie a bitch, and near the end, Cassie straight-up says “Fuck you,” to another character. But for the rest of the book, it seemed like Rick Yancey was going out of his way to avoid cursing. Characters (who are above the age of sixteen) would instead say WTF, or B.S., and this was in the characters’ thought process. Who the hell thinks in abbreviations?

(And seriously, in a book where over 97% of the world’s population is killed in an alien invasion, I don’t think a few f-bombs is going to make a difference.)

So basically, I think you should use profanity when necessary, but don’t overdo it. You could still make dialogue realistic without profanity. For instance, I don’t think The Hunger Games had a single curse word in it, and there’s not a single piece of awkward dialogue. The Harry Potter series had one swear throughout the entire seven books, and the dialogue (for the most part) managed to seem realistic to me.

To be fair though, that one line, “Not my daughter, you BITCH!” was the greatest line in the history of great lines.

Other posts about this topic:

To #%&* or Not to #%&*: Profanity in Fiction

A conversation about swearing in YA fiction on Goodreads.

There’s So Much Damned Profanity in YA Books.

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40 Replies to “Profanity in YA Fiction?”

  1. I wouldn’t really mind all that much if there was profanity in a YA book. I mean, I wouldn’t PREFER it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to completely avoid all books including that kind of language.
    I do agree, though, that in some books, you can tell the author is completely avoiding trying to curse…and when the reader notices it…it’s kinda awkward
    Idk bt if we all tlkd in abrv idk wth we would b rght now…it’d prob b ovrly awkies js…

  2. I’m not totally against profanity, but I think it would be cool if they rated books like movies, or even put a warning on it like most CDs. Because if your younger cousin can read that grade level, but not that content , we should be able to know… You get me??

  3. I’ve written a YA manuscript and wondered about just a tiny bit of swear. Hmm. I should. It suits the scene. Thanks for your post. I found it interesting and helpful.

  4. I would like to write one day, I’ve always wanted to. But I always change my mind on wether I like or dislike a certain story, so I give up everytime. But if I was going to write I would use profanity. Let’s be real. Who has never cursed in his life? It makes it more realistic. I also prefer to read a book where the character says that someone is a bitch then calling her mean. Of course, I don’t want to read a curse word in every phrases, but once in a while just makes it a bit more realistic and I enjoy it.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Just like anything else, I think moderation is the key if you’re going to include profanity in a novel (or any other form of entertainment). Too much is repetitive and annoying, but none at all comes off as unrealistic.

  5. I love this topic. I hate it when writers don’t include cursing in YA novels. I hate it even more when words that should be curse words are tame, like butt, heck, freaking, crap etc. I plain won’t read it because it sounds so false, and it drives me crazy.

    I write YA novels (3 so far) and you better believe my characters curse. I was really young when I started writing my first book, and the people I wrote about were older. Their dialogue didn’t sound genuine and because I didn’t cuss then, they didn’t either. I fixed all that when I got older. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go overboard, but I definitely use swearing to sound realistic, display sarcasm and taunts, and for impact in dramatic situations. You’re right, teens curse. Sorry world, but it’s true.

    I got a kick out of your example about The Fifth Wave. “Who the hell thinks in abbreviations?” That’s a new one. And I so agree with you about Molly’s line in Harry Potter. Epic.

  6. As a society, I think we tend to get hung up on and quibble over surface things. Instead of asking whether or not various deeper themes are appropriate for a given age group, we get caught up in superficial debates over whether or not we should be using the “f-word.” (And incidentally, I hate that critics of foul language are afraid of and avoid using the real word, even when their only intent is to reference the language.)

    I think two major reasons for this are: 1) vestiges remain of the puritanical culture that shaped so much of our early history and 2) people are lazy, and don’t want to have to think too hard about what it is they’re evaluating; it’s much easier to criticize the use of a word than it is to read between the lines and understand the context in which the word was used.

    1. While I don’t consider it as bad as the other group, it bugs me when I see people argue for profanity in fiction, but they’re still afraid to say the real word. I remember in my ninth grade English class, we had a debate over whether Huckleberry Finn should be allowed to be taught in schools. Lots of kids argued that “It’s just a word. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” but then still referred to the word nigger as “That word,” or “The N-word,” even after the teacher made it clear they were allowed to say it. I agreed with what they were saying, but their reluctance to use the word contradicted the entire point they were trying to make.

      I completely agree with your second major reason; whenever I see someone argue that a certain book should be banned from schools, they only only seem to focus on the profanity and never on the deeper meaning behind it. One thing that especially pissed me off was that most of the people who tried to ban Looking for Alaska, by John Green, didn’t even read the entire book. They only focused on a page long oral sex scene, and didn’t even consider that there was a deeper meaning behind it.

  7. This is a really thoughtful posts and I enjoyed reading it. I definitely agree with the idea that if you want realistic characters sometimes a swear word is called for. I actually love reading profanity when it’s used to help increase the humor in a scene, and I also miss it when the proverbial shit hits the fan and the characters respond with the mere “darn it.” On the flipside, I don’t like seeing it when it’s forced or out of place – used to gain a little bit more of an edge, if you will.
    I have wondered about this in my own writings, and I have to say the only thing I consider a valid argument for not using them is that it shrinks your eventual target-audience a bit. I work in book retail and there is a decent number of YA customers unwilling to purchase a book with profanity. Granted, they are mostly parents buying for their teens and I happen to live in a very conservative area, but nonetheless it’s a factor that can affect your sales, so I think it deserves some thought. It is much easier for me to hand sell a title without profanity because I don’t have to worry that they’ll come back angry at me.

    1. It is true that including profanity decreases the chances of parents buying the book, but it does make it more likely for teenagers to want to read it. From my experience, teenagers seemed to be drawn to profanity like moths are attracted to light.

  8. I like this post. It’s something I struggle with in my writing. The characters in my novel are between seventeen and twenty-one for the most part, and some are American where some are British. It’s hard to tell sometimes who would use what curse words, but I don’t doubt they all have something they’d swear about. I mean, who wouldn’t in the right situation?

    Your post reminded me of another good one on a similar subject: http://jameswilliaml.com/2013/11/24/fuck-shit-damn-the-nature-of-cursing/

  9. I don’t mind curse words as long as they’re, well if they’re not overused. If it’s not every sentence of dialogue then I’m okay with any cursing. I hear cursing everyday whether I want to or not. You get used to it after a while.

  10. A very interesting topic. Although I personally do not use curse words in my writing, I don’t wholly reject them anywhere else. I also find it incredibly irritating when people in real life or authors feel the need to curse every two minutes. When a curse word is needed in my writing, I’ll simply say that the character cursed, without being specific. That way, I get the effect I’m looking for, and I don’t have to offend my own morals.

    1. I don’t mind when authors do the same as what you do; I just get annoyed when the author puts in a stupid substitution like “What the f-bomb?”

      I too get annoyed when people feel the need to curse every two minutes, although in my school, some students feel the need to curse every ten seconds. I guess I’ve just gotten used to profanity.

  11. This is a really great topic! I think that there are some ways in which profanity can be used tastefully- that might sound weird, but if you are using it purposefully and not just for the sake of throwing down swear words, it can add to your writing.
    As someone who is still in that YA age group, I am all over the map with this sort of thing in my own writing. I’m one of those people who (in real life) will say odd things like, “Holy hat!” instead of something vulgar just because I like the way it sounds, so occasionally there will be a character who reflects that in my writing, but most people I know in the age group don’t give a second thought to dropping their favourite curse word. If you want to keep it realistic, a bit of profanity should be expected.
    As for thinking in abbreviations, that sounds a little bit too forced. If anything, I would say going out of your way to replace swear words when it’s obviously the more natural dialogue or word choice would end up detracting from the writing.

  12. Depending on how much cursing there is in a YA novel, then I would have to stay if you are using words that a young person should not be allowed to “see” or “hear” at whatever age they are. (I just confused myself on how to explain what I’m saying)
    Basically, there are ways you could use curse words tastefully, but the author shouldn’t go too far in adding in curse words just for their enjoyment. Maybe it also depends on the story/novel itself? When I was a young adult, I don’t think I found too many books with massive amounts of cussing. There were the occasional curse word, but nothing to have me disgusted or exhausted by seeing them. But it may also depend on your taste for novels, etc.

    1. I think young adult novels should have a sticker on the back (or something like that) telling the reader that the book contains mature content. As long as it’s just a recommendation.

  13. The English have been swearing throughout history but more aggressive words like ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ didn’t arrive until late in the 12th Century. Yes they still have the power to offend but the impact of swearing is continuing to diminish as time goes by. The truth is that teenagers swear and it’s almost a rite of passage. As writers’ aren’t we obligated to create credible and realistic characters that YA’s can relate to and identify with? How do we expect to build up an audience of readers with dialogue that doesn’t ring true?
    I remember ‘Dear Miffy’ by John Marsden creating a furore for it’s swearing (and subject matter) when it was first published. If similar books make teens eager to read, where’s the ‘fucking’ problem? I don’t see it.

  14. Interesting post. For me personally, I don’t really mind profanity in novels (there are other things that bug me far more than some swearing). What I do hate is when authors make their teenage characters swear because “that’s just what teenagers do”. Though the majority of teens do curse, admittedly, I find this kind of offensive. I feel like when teen characters curse, it can make the characters sound really stupid and unintelligent. I don’t feel this way in all cases though. Sometimes, if you have a rebellious character for example, swearing can actually help develop that character’s personality. So profanity, for certain characters, can actually be a good thing, I think.

    It also depends on the story. Some of my novels have quite a bit of profanity while others have close to nothing. Profanity just doesn’t fit very well in the story I’m currently writing, and I feel like if I jammed it full of swear words, it would ruin the mood of the novel. There are a few swear words, but I keep it to a minimum. On the other hand, a novel I worked on a couple years ago had a swear word on about every other page, but it seemed to fit. Therefore, I had no problem with profanity then.

    Wow, this was kind of a long comment, but this is such an interesting topic, I wanted to share my thoughts on it.

    1. I’m the same way with my writing. “My Super Awesome Time Travel Novella” had barely any profanity in it, because it didn’t seem necessary, but in some of my other works, the characters swear all the time, but it was necessary because it was part of their personalities,

  15. *nodnod* Excellent topic! I cringed at the “swearing” in PJO too…

    I don’t know if you’ve read anything by Maggie Stiefvater, but she uses swearing pretty well, especially in The Dream Thieves. It’s just… it’s appropriate to the situation and the characters. It works.

    1. I haven’t read anything by Maggie Stiefvater, but I’m starting to see her books everywhere so I’ll probably read one. My only question is: Is The Dream Thieves a sequel to the Scorpio Race? (I think that’s what it’s called.) Someone told me it was.

      Also, I just finished A Game of Thrones. It’s weird how Sansa annoyed me throughout most of the book, but once Ned died she became one of my favorite characters. Anyone who hates Joffrey is fine by me.

      1. Nope, The Scorpio Races is a stand-alone. The Dream Thieves is sequel to The Raven Boys.

        Yep, she doesn’t really come into her own until then. But she’s just as tough as Arya…

  16. That Mrs.Weasley line is my all-time favorite HP line!

    As a parent of a teen and a tween, as a writer, and as a reader of YA novels, I have to say that I agree with you on this. We talk to our kids about swearing and the way I look at it, I don’t have a particular problem with swearing now and then – it can be extremely effective for emphasis in some situations, BUT if the person doing it doesn’t have the vocabulary to express herself in any other way, then that’s just lazy. It should be a thought out choice, not an ignorant default. (And since kids are in the process of building up their vocabularies, I don’t think kids should be defaulting out of ignorance).

    Also, I think that if someone swears ALL the time, it loses something. When someone uses swear words more selectively, it carries a lot more punch when they’re trying to make a point – people really sit up and listen when it comes from someone who doesn’t just drop it as an every-other-word adjective.

    Great post. Great discussion.

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