Do the characters in your novels swear?
From the conversations I've had with numerous novelists, it seems there are two sides to the debate as to whether the answer should be yes or no.
“My characters use strong language,” one author might say, “simply because that’s how people really talk. I want my dialog to be as realistic as possible.”
Another might argue, “Well I don’t swear in real life. I find such language offensive and I don’t want it in my books.”
And here’s the thing about this kind of issue – even though they disagree, both of those authors are absolutely right!
So how should you decide whether to include profanity in your books?
Let’s look at the question from a few different viewpoints.
First there’s the business angle. Will your book sales be affected one way or the other depending on whether you decide to use profanity?
It's clear that some people don’t care if the books they read are laced with frequent f-bombs. These people will not be put off from buying your books because of language.
But plenty of other readers do care. They flinch every time they bump into a word they find offensive. Make them flinch enough times and they’ll stop reading. Then they won’t buy more of your books. Nor will they do other things you want your readers to do, like recommending your books to a friend or leaving a good review.
The initial draft of my first novel included a fair sprinkling of strong language. I knew some of my family members would be less likely to enjoy the read because of it, but I wasn’t writing for them. I was writing for the general public. I knew plenty of other authors use profanity in their novels, so I sort of defaulted into using it.
After all, I reasoned, Stephen King is one well-known proponent of the “strong language for realism” camp and he clearly has sold plenty of books.
Then my beta readers had a go at the manuscript. A few of them reacted to the strong language, which got me thinking. I ended up deciding to leave out the worst of the swear words from my novels purely for business reasons. I didn’t want to exclude a percentage of book buyers from my potential future fan base.
I also predicted that readers who don’t mind strong language wouldn’t care (or even notice) if it was missing.
And that’s how things have turned out. Several reviewers have commented how much they appreciated not having to wade through the strong language “...that you see in so many books nowadays.” Not one single reviewer has mentioned they would have preferred seeing some cuss words.
“But,” some novelists might argue, “I am risking sales if I leave out the swear words. My dialog will be less realistic, more stilted. I won’t be able to show strong emotion as effectively. Couldn’t those issues affect my sales?”
Yes, those are important issues, but a skilled novelist should be able to produce realistic dialog and show strong emotion in a variety of ways.
Go sit in a coffee shop sometime and listen to how the people at the tables next to you really talk. They speak in snippets of phrases, sometimes just grunts or single words. They start sentences and never finish them. They interrupt each other, lose their train of thought, repeat themselves. They stutter and stammer, using poor grammar or local idioms. (Be careful not to overdo it with those last two!) Turns out there are tons of ways to make your dialog gritty and realistic beyond simply word choice.
As for emotion, someone who is angry or hurt or scared will have physical reactions. They’ll clench their hair, stomp around, get a sharp stab of pain in their gut, develop a headache, become red in the face, cross their arms, run away ... on and on. They’ll lash out with hurtful accusations, give someone the silent treatment, bring up an old hurtful incident, or yell. A fiction writer has plenty of tools at their disposal for showing (remember, showing more often than telling) their readers how their characters feel inside, even without using certain swear words.
Take prime-time television as an example. Plenty of TV shows depict situations that are as action-packed and emotion-laden as you can imagine – war stories, downtown street gangs, cop shows, couples going through violent fights and divorces. The writers for these shows have for years been able to convey every range of realistic interchange and down-and-dirty emotion possible, all within strict language constraints.
If they can do it, so can you ... but only if that’s what you want, because there’s one more side to this topic – your freedom to express yourself however you wish.
Perhaps you care more about your artistic flexibility than you do about sales. Maybe you’re writing about characters that you know use strong language and writing them in any other way would feel wrong to you.
Whatever your reasons, I believe you should feel free to express yourself in your writing as you see fit. I also believe you’re better off if you do so while taking into account all sides of the language question, which is the purpose of this post – simply to illuminate some sides of the issue that not every novelist considers. With this knowledge in hand, you can decide which factors are most important to you. There really is no wrong decision.
And the best news of all? Whichever way you lean, there’s sure to be an audience for the amazing messages you offer the world through your fiction!