Sally of Limebird Writers wrote a post describing a dilemma she has in writing dialogue. She writes Youth Adult (YA) paranormal novels and wants to avoid using profanity out of concern for her young readers. She’s certain that today’s teenager, while confronting an unearthly being, would utter a four-letter word. Yet she wants to express the teen’s reaction without using an obscenity.
There was a range of opinion in the comments that her post received, from condoning the use of profanity as being realistic to praising Sally for minding the kids. Being new to the writing life, I read the comments with interest and joined the conversation.
What’s a writer to do? Should the bombs be dropped to accent your character’s fear, admiration, surprise, disgust, attack? And what about casual conversation?
Sally’s post got me thinking about the use of profanity in writing and how I’m committed to not using it. Here are the tools I’ll use to keep my commitment.
Describe rather than include
In my experience, I have found these reasons to be the most common for why people use profanity in their speech:
- to shock or frighten
- to express their anger
- to humiliate
- as a cover for fear
- to act hip and edgy
- peer pressure
- out of habit
My method is to focus on and describe the reason and reaction rather than use an offensive word. Imagine a character in a scene that includes one of the points I listed. Think about the plot-moving, character-developing description you could write about the person who either used the word or was on the receiving end. Which do you think would be more useful to your story and reader: the profanity or the description? Maybe you think both are necessary. It’s your choice.
If I had a character hiding from and listening to an abusive husband who used profanity, I’d write something like this:
The filth he spewed as he searched the house caused her desperation to grow. For she knew that tone: he was Damon now.
Create a word or turn a phrase
In my comment to Sally, I suggested she create a new term or two that could be owned by the protagonist and show off her personality. Since her story is dealing with the paranormal, why not give it something less ordinary than an f-bomb? She liked that idea.
Here’s one that I just made up:
Bree twisted her way up and out of the storage hole. “Sliver of night!” she whispered as she bore the pain of the metal edge through her jeans. The Elkin was not far behind.
It sounds silly, and it didn’t take much thought, but “Sliver of night” is a term I will most likely use in my writing. What term will you create?
Use a synonym to convey the use
In my writings I’ve used curse and swear. Here’s a short list of synonyms for profanity (from Merriam-Webster):
- bawdiness, blueness, coarseness, crudeness, crudity, curse, cuss word, dirty word,
- expletive, filth, filthiness, foulness, four-letter word, grossness, impurity, indecency
- lasciviousness, lewdness, nastiness, obscenity, raunchiness, ribaldry
- smut, swear, vulgarity, wantonness
Take your pick!
I’m writing a short story where the young protagonist uses foul language to make herself feel grown up. You won’t read the words, though, and the story will show that her swearing only makes things worse.
I don’t use profanity in my speech, but there is no avoiding it in my life. For many years, though, I used profanity regularly, so I understand how it comes into play. I take no pride in that fact and when you do find the allusion in my stories, the profanity is a character flaw.
There is interesting conversation about writing and profanity. Google the topic and you’ll find thousands of articles. In the end, it’s your story. Write in a way that will make you proud to have your name associated with it.
That’s what I intend to do.
Question: What’s your opinion? How do you handle the use of profanity in your writing?