To curse or not to curse in your books?
“Should I use curse words in my books?” It’s a debate I didn’t even know we needed to have until I got neck deep in the indie author community.
As a bit of a potty-mouth in my daily life, it never occurred to me that some people would expect books to have no cursing. Like, zero. “But books are about people. People curse!” Including four-letter words seemed like a given to me.
I can’t tell you where this strange debate originated, but that part doesn’t matter. If you’re reading this post, you probably want practical advice on how to approach your next book or series (or you’re one of those folks who’s looking for me to validate your immovable, absolute position, in which case, just go ahead, do what you came here to do, and jump to the comments section where you can “well, actually” to your heart’s content). I love practical advice. Let’s do it.
I write three series across three different pen names. Two of my series include seventy fucktons of cursing each. One includes exactly no swear words.
Is that because one is for children? No. I have zero desire to write for the wee ones, but you’re getting awfully close to the crux of this discussion, and that’s this commandment:
Know thine audience.
To curse …
Case study 1: Jessica Christ — humor/satire, coming-of-age
This is my comedy series about the daughter of God who is born in West Texas. It’s set in a small, dead-end town, and let’s face it, the easily offended aren’t going to dig the premise from the start. People who enjoy religious and political satire will probably be willing to endure harsher language if it gets the job done of prodding at society’s flaws.
There will always exist the type of people who need everyone to know they only support stand-up comics “who don’t resort to cursing and talking about sex to be funny.” I can appreciate a clean set as much as the next gal, but I’ve never felt the need to make a point about it. The folks who do aren’t my readers and I don’t care. I never cared. I find them obnoxious, to be frank. In that way, I’m crystal clear about who my readers are.
To me, the most important thing in writing the characters in Jessica Christ was to make them true to life. The religious characters don’t curse. (I write scenes with Jesus, and I never have him curse, because I know it would be a bridge too far for my Christian readers.) But the characters who have an eighth-grade education, work minimum-wage jobs, and couldn’t give two licks about religion are going to curse when they’re mad. Or whenever the hell they feel like it. The teenage characters are going to spout filth. I even have God curse a few times because He makes the rules, so He can break them.
When deciding whether or not to include cursing in this specific series, I took into account my topic (God’s daughter in modern times), my audience (the middle 70% of America who aren’t uptight assholes), and my purpose (to entertain while addressing serious modern issues head-on). You might notice that spells TAP, and, yes, that’s the shit your elementary teachers drilled you with, and it still matters.
Conclusion: To adequately depict modern times to an audience who probably doesn’t mind the swears, with the goal of confronting sacred cows, cussing is a necessary element to create authenticity of characters and setting. What’s more, not cursing would be notably odd and unauthentic for this storyverse.
Case study 2: Kilhaven Police — paranormal, police procedural, comedy
This series is about paranormal police, and there’s really no reason not to use foul language. Since cursing is my personal communication default, I come at it from that angle: is there any compelling reason why there shouldn’t be salty language in this? If not, then it’s easier for me to include it.
And to drive this point home, it would feel strange in this storyverse if a gator-shifter on meth didn’t sling some curse words at the cops as they put him in cuffs. (Yes, that scene was terribly fun to write.)
Admittedly, I pour it on thick with the language in Kilhaven Police, but it’s done intentionally to achieve a specific tone. The series is about as dark as comedy gets. Excessive cursing, done right, can keep readers on their toes, creating a sense of uneasiness that mimics the feeling every cop experiences responding to calls. Some of the officers may seem callous at the start, but as the readers begin to feel how quickly a situation can turn from calm to chaos, they find themselves sympathizing rather than judging. In that way, cursing becomes a weapon in my authorial duty belt.
Another reason why cursing works for this genre and setting is that it’s the language of anger, even if it’s not directed at someone, and anger is often used as a way to create emotional distance. If you want to survive in a brutal environment, you can’t be emotionally vulnerable. You have to armor up with more than just a bullet-proof vest.
… Or not to curse
Case study 3: Eastwind Witches — paranormal cozy mystery
There wasn’t much of a decision to be made with this series. The genre, cozy mystery, simply doesn’t tolerate cursing. It also doesn’t tolerate on-page violence or open-door sex. It’s a haven for people who need a minute. I respect the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of that. Don’t we all need a minute lately?
The problem, of course, is that at the start of book 1, my protagonist enters a magical world and discovers the dead body of a werewolf who was smiling at her flirtatiously only a few moments prior.
Personally, I can’t imagine not cursing if I found myself in that situation. But there are options. You can avoid being completely inauthentic while also avoiding the no-no words. It doesn’t make for a terribly realistic storyverse, but hey, that’s not why people seek out paranormal cozies.
The first option is to put something in the narration like, “she let loose a string of profanity,” without actually writing it out. This functions under the same non-logic of people who are chill with “f*ck” but will totally lose it if you add in that missing u. They understand cussing has a place in the world, but they would prefer to avert their eyes, thank you very much.
This tactic only works in small portions, though, and when you need a character to curse in the middle of dialogue, you can hardly keep interrupting it with “and then she said a naughty word.”
Here’s the second option: get creative.
The FFS in FFS Media means, unabashedly, “for fuck’s sake,” which is less of a curse word and more of a vibe that permeates my entire life, hence the name. But in my cozy mystery, I can’t say fuck, and yet there are opportunities where this phrase seems like the perfect flourish for the nonsense going down. That’s where I get creative. Since it’s specifically paranormal, “for fang’s sake” works as an easy substitute and has quickly become a favorite phrase among readers. Others include “sweet baby jackalope,” “what in the hellhound,” “siren’s song,” and I even slip in a “damnation” relating it directly to vampire culture (pushing it, I know). Not only do readers not mind these obvious substitutions, they love them. They use them in correspondence with me and in the Facebook group, and it brings a happy tear to my eye every time someone calls bullshit by saying, “unicorn swirls!”
Even if you don’t write paranormal, you can use a similar approach to your benefit.
Consider it a world-building tactic. Say you write sci-fi. Have your characters shout “quasar!” or “go quark yourself,” or whatever. Language is a reflection of culture and environment, so let the readers peep in at the culture and environment of your story through the lens of language, specifically, naughty language. If you spend a moment thinking up some funny phrases, your readers will love you for it.
In the end, it all comes back to “know thine audience,” and more broadly, TAP.
One final note: the considerations above refer specifically to cursing in dialogue or first-person narration. Cursing in third-person narration (limited or omniscient) is an entirely different beast and should be handled with the same caution one would use typically reserve for carrying a stick of old dynamite. It’s also a topic for another time.
Will this post finally put to rest the question of cursing in books? Not a chance. There are all kinds of variations to the arguments, but hopefully this will give you a firm starting point.
Just remember: in the end, it’s your story. Do whatever the fuck feels right.
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