The Pros and Cons of Cursing in Young Adult Literature

expletiveAfter six books that were curse free, I’ll never forget my surprise near the end of the final Harry Potter book, when Mrs. Weasley calls the woman who killed her son a bitch. I remember wondering – can she do that? Of course, she can and she did. But that’s J. K. Rowling. Should you, in your self-published young adult novel, take the same risk?

The general consensus is that there is no consensus. Some parents (and even YA readers) are completely offended by profanity of any sort in literature aimed at readers who are not technically considered adults.

There are ways around this, of course. Authors like John Green, in addition to the occasional real swear word, also invent their own (like “douchepants” in The Fault in our Stars). Personally, I think that made up curse words rarely  have the same impact as the real thing, and, at worst, come off a little silly. Occasionally there’s a word like “frak” from the Battlestar Gallactica TV show that resonates, but often it feels like what it is – a bit of a cop out.

In general, using a few well-chosen curse words in YA literature seems like a pretty safe bet. Most people are comfortable with it in specific situations, especially if the words chosen aren’t the really forbidden ones. (You know what they are.) YA authors who use some cursing  are in good company – a 2012 Brigham Young study reported that 88% of the top 40 YA books contained at least some profanity.

Of course, there’s always the option to stay completely clean, although I can’t imagine a scenario where a young adult says, “Aw, pickles!” when he’s really frustrated. That might inspire my laughter, but there is no universe in which that character can be considered anything approaching cool.

I’m considering, for my next series, writing from the perspective of a character who would swear A LOT. It feels like it would be true to her voice to never hold back. Have you ever known someone who curses less in anger, but more as a matter of course? I have, and it’s funny and refreshing. But then again, I was raised in a house where cursing was okay as long as we didn’t do it in public. I don’t think that’s rare – teens are exposed to swearing much more today than a few decades ago, and it doesn’t have the same power to offend that it did in the past.

I would really value some advice on this one. Do you think that considerable cursing in YA literature is acceptable, or should I tone down how my character talks so as not to offend?

11 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Cursing in Young Adult Literature

  1. I don’t think you’re main concern should be whether or not people will be offended. Instead, it should be what you said: is that particular character the type of person who swears a lot? Does the swearing fit with the tone of the novel? If yes, then go for it! But I don’t think being worried about offended people is really the right way to think about it.
    Good luck!

      • I agree with Bailey. Ideally, the character and tone should dictate the language used. IRL teenagers can curse to an appalling degree (I swear my ears were blue by the time I got to the office of my kids’ high school any given day). If the novel feels authentic, then it should find an audience–yeah, it’ll offend someone, but then you have to decide why you’re writing it–to tell the story in the most truthful way possible, or to avoid offense? It’s very hard to say anything worthwhile without offending SOMEbody.
        I say this knowing I’ve put off writing some things just because I know they’ll offend some people in my life and I won’t write them unless I outlive them or grow a pair.

  2. As a reader, I am not a huge fan of an abundance of cursing. It tends to be distracting a/o annoying. If I was watching TV and every other word was bleeped, I would turn the show off. But at the same time, the occasional word can help build the scene’s emotion. One of the reasons Harry Potter (and even the show Pokemon) was so popular was because it wasn’t afraid to put kids in a potentially adult situation. If someone in that situation should be swearing in real life, then I don’t see reason to sugar coat it.

    If your series was made into a movie, what rating would you be going for? If you want the under 18 crowd to see it, you are going to want to limit the f bombs (more than one will earn you an R). You’d probably want to avoid the religious exclamations and most words referencing female genitalia as well. Words dealing with excrement are likely okay as long as the curse is merited.

  3. This issue is also relevant to fiction for adults. For me, some modern novels are spoiled by having swear words in almost every sentence of dialogue. But the F-word does appear once in my own latest book – anything more polite would have lessened the impact and sounded prissy. So, I’d say, use curses occasionally and with caution.

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