Friday, December 2, 2011

Swearing in YA - A Teen's Perspective

Ah, swearing. A semi-hot-button issue. Today's post will be short, as it's one in the morning and I have a math test to study for, but I just thought I'd comment on swearing in YA fiction.

Personally, I'm fine with a bit of swearing. I swear on occasion (probably more than I should) and I don't have a single friend who doesn't swear. Quite honestly, it's part of being a teenager, and I'd wager that 95% of teens have sworn at one point or another. There will always be exceptions to such a generalization, but for the most part swear words are consistently present in day-to-day high school life.

Here's the thing: as an author, you write from your main character's perspective. What your main character chooses to do and say does NOT necessarily reflect your own beliefs. For instance, my main character steals a human child every year for a ritualistic sacrifice. Does this mean I condone sacrificing infants? Of course not. My main character is not me, and I am not my main character. At times, I feel readers (parents in particular) have a hard time separating the two.

If you write a book from the perspective of a girl who's dabbled in drugs, odds are she swears. Sanitizing all her language will reduce the authenticity of your work. Trust me, readers will notice. On the other hand, forcing a character who otherwise wouldn't swear to use foul language (usually in an attempt to connect with a teenaged audience) will feel just that: forced. Immerse yourself in your main character's thoughts. What would she/he say? Write from your character's perspective, regardless of your own moral values. A writer who lets his or her own beliefs overtake the organic actions of a character is compromising the impact of the project.

On a forum the other day, one of the commenters said something along the lines of, "There are always ways to avoid swearing. Authors only swear when they can't come up with a more creative/intelligent way to express feelings." Now, could an author come up with a more creative and less vulgar way to say "fuck you?" Certainly. But would the character in question purposely abstain from using the word "fuck" in order to avoid foul language? Doubtful, in the case of most teenagers. Any attempt to censor language at the expense of a character's individual voice does a disservice to the author and the reader.

I've also heard parents express concern that teens will "pick up on" swearing in YA, and thus use the words themselves. This may be true in select cases, particularly younger/less mature teens, and I think it's appropriate that some parents help select what their children read. But by the time teens enter high school, they're surrounded by swear words all day. Anybody who says otherwise is kidding themselves. Considering the amount of foul language teens hear regardless of what they read, swearing in a YA novel is not going to change whether or not they swear. Most kids are smarter and more self-assured than adults give them credit for.

Swearing must be deliberate. It must be an accurate representation of the character, and the situation should warrant such an expression of intense emotion. I think it's entirely possible to write a clean YA novel with an authentic ring. However, in my opinion, there is most definitely a place for swearing in many YA stories.


  1. I agree with this completely. I don't think swearing should be entirely absent from YA, but I don't think it should be put in unnecessarily just to make the characters sound like teenagers.

    And not only should a swearword fit the character, but it also should be used at the right times. Sure, an author can find a more inventive way around it, but will it have the same impact? Sometimes, you just can't avoid a good "fuck you," because there's really nothing that has the same impact when your character is so angry they can hardly express themselves.

    And besides that, when authors use blank spaces or different words to replace swearing, it just comes across as silly and unrealistic, and jars the reader out of the story.

  2. Awesome post. I hate that my 11 yo swears worse than a sailor. Does that mean my characters don't swear? Hell no! Some swear more than others. But they are all 17 years old. And they aren't my son. ;)

  3. So, um, my nano was edgy. And I do not swear, generally. But Tessa's voice included all sorts of profanity, and hey. I'm gonna tell the story her way. My sister refuses to read it because of the profanity, and that's her prerogative. Am I still proud of it? Yes. Am I still going through and carefully making sure every swear word feels natural and needs to be there? YES.

  4. No Way! This is the exact topic I wrote about today. Not too different from what you had to say, either. Great post! Totally agree with you. :)

  5. Very well done post on a sensitive topic. I agree that worrying that teens will pick up swearing from books is laughable. But maybe they hear it so much involuntarily, they prefer not to immerse themselves in so much swearing while doing something that is usually their escape from the every-day world.

    I actually think a lot of this is up to the author and what they're comfortable with. It's not hard to write good books without swearing. To say that swearing makes a book more authentic isn't necessarily true, it's just if you want to write from the POV of a character who swears, then great, but make sure the swearing isn't overshadowing the really important stuff. But it's not hard to decide that your character, for whatever reason, doesn't use swear words in their regular vocabulary.

    Personally, I don't mind it, and I wouldn't shy away from using a swear word or two in my books as long as it felt authentic, and not only authentic, but necessary; necessary meaning no other word will suffice in that particular moment, not even no words. Otherwise it's just distraction.

    But you know what annoys me more than swear words? Made-up swear words. I don't think that's very creative; just a cop-out and most of the time I hear the word they really meant anyway, because it's so obvious what word they're substituting for.

    I think the best example of a book that swears A LOT, but at the same time feels totally necessary, is FEED by M.T. Anderson. But the way he uses the profanities is more of a realistic portrayal on how unattractive (and when used in excess, uneducated) it sounds, instead of condoning the actual swearing or making it sound cool.

    Gosh, I just wrote an entire blog-post in your comments.

  6. Yay! You found me Kate! It was so great to meet you today!

    I must admit, I've heard tons of swear words when I'm waiting to pick up my high school kids. But I agree it has to be authentic or else it just sounds weird. ;)

  7. good point. I didn't swear much as a teenager and my character reflects that, but she still swears a couple of times (I think her father being killed deserves a little curse) Anyway it was great to meet you yesterday! Have an awesome day!

  8. Thank you! You can always avoid swearing, true, but if you're being true to the character then you shouldn't always have to.

  9. I agree. It is all about authenticity and being true to your characters. Thanks for sharing. It is nice to have a teenager's perspective on this.