Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Swearing in YA Fiction

I was reading a forum thread today.  It was the first page of a debate thread.  And being that it is a Christian forum, everyone on there agreed swearing is bad in YA fiction.

Is swearing bad, then?  Is it just inherently evil, or does it not really matter?  My immediate reaction might be something along the lines of "Well, it's what the writer means it as."

But is that true?  If I don't really mean what I say when I take God's name in vain, does that excuse me?

If they're empty words, why is there a taboo on them in Christian culture?  Do you see the point in holding up a meaningless tradition?

If they're just words, I may as well expand my vocabulary!  If I don't mean anything by them, how can they harm?

But do I really mean something?  Maybe, maybe not.  A lot of teens  (and adults) spout out words they might not even understand just for the sake of it.  But they're expressions, are they not?  For some, swearing is just another adjective.  For others, they say it in anger, surprise, or even happiness.  They're expressing their feelings.

So is expressing your feelings - even when you're using swear words - okay?  Here's a key point though.  I'm not using a swear word for basically no reason - I'm using it to express myself.  And so it does mean something to me . . .

Of course, it may just be a habit I got stuck onto.

So is swearing really bad?  The Bible says using God's name in vain is bad, but what about the other words?  The words that aren't using God's name in vain?  The f-word, the s-word?

We might find them vulgar, as Christians.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Our own beliefs should come out far stronger than what the world excepts.  Our beliefs should be more powerful to us individually.  Philippians 4:8 validates our shunning of those two words for us personally.

And so as a writer, it partially depends on what your own moral standard is.

But going back to this forum.  One member said:
"If you need a character to cuss:

1.  Make up swear phrases.
2.  Simply write "Billy cursed."

Do you agree with this?

I don't.  Why?  Because making up your own swear words is just a pathetic excuse to make yourself feel "unguilty".  I'm sorry, but I have to be blunt.  What's the difference between using the phrase: "Oh my god" and "By the King's beard."?

The king in the second phrase is referring to a god-like presence in whatever fantasy world writers may be writing in.  But there's no difference.  Using God's name in vain, only switching the official title?  Think about that a while.

Moving on to number two then.  I feel uncomfortable with this too.  If someone - maybe an impressionable young kid, reads that his hero curses, then by all means, that should mean he is allowed to do so too . . .

Even if original intentions are not so, indirect and even subconscious messages can be transmit through the page.  I know what "Billy" is saying.  And covering up the word with "Billy cursed" is only an excuse to hide what the character is saying.  Just write the word if that's what you're trying to say.

Or would you feel guilty . . . ?

I don't like swearing in my fiction - or anything that I read.  But what's the point of trying to hide it when I know it's there?

C.S. Lewis swore.  Or maybe he just used it in his books to give a more authentic feel to the characters.  Whatever the case, he didn't use it in the Chronicles of Narnia.  It's a family friendly series.  I have no wish to put profanity in children's stories - but covering it up with "he swore"?  There's no difference.

If a kid gets the wrong idea from a curse word, it's your responsibility.  You may not be able to fix it - but you could have prevented it.  It affects.  Words affect.

And that is why words are so powerful.  They can create emotion.  And they can create mistakes.  If you have swear words, even in foreign languages, show that it is wrong.

Show that swearing, no matter the random string of letters - but that the meaning of it - is wrong.

What's your opinion on swear words?  Are they inherently evil?  Do you not mind "he swore" so much?  What about other words?  Would you replace a swear word with "rats!"?  Also, what do you think about the words that mean different things in different places?  In America, bloody is an acceptable word.  In the United Kingdom and other British affiliated nations however, "bloody" is offensive.

Is masking what you mean by using other words acceptable?  Even if your meaning is the same?  For an evil character, this is sometimes a question you may be faced with, even just for the sake of authenticity.

And also, what - in your mind - is the difference between using God's name in vain, as in "Good God!" and exclamations of surprise or other emotions?

- R


  1. Interesting.

    I've never thought about it this way.
    I, for one, don't put swear words or 'he swore' in my books anymore. I agree with you.

    -Jason L.

    1. Glad to spur some new thought for you. :)
      Thanks for reading.

      - Robert

  2. Interesting thoughts.
    I agree to some degree that replacing a swear word with a euphemism is tricky business. But I believe that each person has to decide "what euphemism is okay?" If you believe that all euphemisms are bad, then you couldn't even say "Oh, rats" because that could technically be traced back to a vulgar word. I personally believe that "drat" and "darn" are okay. Of course I understand what they replace, but they are generally considered "soft euphemisms" for the same reason swear words are considered's a society thing.
    As for your second point, well, I understand and respect your opinion. But I don't know any gentler way to convey the character's impolite verbiage. The thing is, the character swore no matter how we choose (or if we choose) to tell the reader. It's kind of difficult to use phrases like "he impolitely expressed his extreme displeasure" all the time.
    Regardless of my opinions, I respect yours and commend your explanation of them.

    1. I tend to agree with NightBlade.

      I see what you're trying to say, Aror, but I still use 'he swore/cursed'. Though, I do respect your opinion.

    2. NightBlade - Of course. :) Not all alternatives are bad. It's all in the meaning behind it. Minced oaths can be a tricky business sometimes.
      On the second point, I agree with you. I do. I'm not going to debate you, seeing as I do use it still is most cases. :P
      And I respect your opinions as well. Always good to hear from the other side of things.

      - R

  3. Good thoughts. :) Swearing in Fiction is something that I've been thinking about for awhile, and I can see both sides of the argument, I guess…
    Currently I'm reading a book where one character starts tossing out swearwords while working in the garden. It was totally unnecessary. Morality aside--swearwords turn off a lot of readers. It just narrows your audience. It serves no purpose, except to set the book apart as an 'adult book.'
    However, I do think that sometimes swearing adds a bit of realism to a book. For instance, if the book is about a hardcore Mafia boss, he's gonna curse. It wouldn't really be believable otherwise. Swearing also adds a tone to the dialogue and makes it much easier to write. Buuuuuut… there are ways to do that without descending into four-letter-words.
    I try to avoid curses or find family friendly alternatives that still get the point across, but I understand why some people use them. So while swearing doesn't bother me, I don't think I'll write much of it. Just because I'll have to read that word over and over during the writing process, and I don't want to fall into that habit.


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