advice / Kristia S.

Coarse Language in Teen Novels, by Paul Volponi


I have always debated on the concept of characters cussing and not cussing, verses if it seems real or doesn’t seem realistic.

I’m not much of a cusser (I’m saying this because I do have my slip-ups, but I generally don’t cuss, nor do I support it), and I really don’t want my characters in my books to cuss. But where is the line drawn with realism of characters in books? If I choose for my characters to not cuss, would that make them seem less real?

Right now, in my fantasy trilogy WISHBOOKS of DISTORIA, none of my characters curses. However, now I have the thought that if there comes a situation that a real person would probably utter a cuss word, but I choose to not type it in, would it take the realism away? Thus, making my story suffer a blow of not seeming real enough?
I have a strong hold in my characters not cussing, because I don’t support it, nor do I really want to influence it to my readers. This is a debate I have had for years now, and this article just brought it back up again. So for this concept I’m for it, and then I’m against it.

In my opinion, I think it depends on what kind of story you’re writing. Mine is in a fantasy world, following a fifteen-year-old girl, who is pretty innocent. I may be able to get away with no cursing in these books. But then, I am still debating on the idea of it.

So I guess this takes me to neutral territory on the subject of Coarse Language in books.

Give me your thoughts!
Is this a concept you’ve thought over?

Writing Teen Novels

Probably the first rule of being a novelist is to be truthful and honest in everything you produce. That means putting the right words into your characters’ mouths. For me, part of that truthfulness is occasionally having my characters use profanities. Now let me make this 100% clear. I never have my characters cursing to simply look cool or grab the reader’s attention. I only have them do so when the scene dictates a tense or angry mood in which real people might use these very emotional words.

Black and White, which centers on racial prejudice, has a fair number of racial slurs. So does Response, which is a about NYC hate crime, and Rooftop, which is about the shooting of an unarmed black teen by the police. The language is there because these are the real words I have heard people use in the real-life situations mirrored…

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2 thoughts on “Coarse Language in Teen Novels, by Paul Volponi

  1. I’ve promised myself to never use foul language in my writing, because I hate it so much. Admittedly, I do come from a conservative background, so having an author steer away from cussing in tense situations doesn’t seem unrealistic to me. What does throw me out of the story is feeling like the author just stabbed me in the brain with a foul word. Cussing hurts me — yes, because I’m ‘sheltered,’ because I haven’t yet become desensitized to it. But becoming numb to something doesn’t mean it’s not still doing damage. To me, part of the reason I read books is that I can experience certain situations without bearing the full burden of all the negative things that would happen in that situation — so that I can learn without being injured, in a sense.

    I heard someone say that foul language was like brain pollution. It clutters up the mental air with smog and makes it hard to take a deep, clear breath of thought. Whatever enters our minds becomes part of us, no matter how small or unnoticed that part may be. There’s a reason immigrants gradually tend to lose their foreign accents. We talk like the people around us, mirroring what we hear, and the more we are exposed to negative, dark language, the more likely our brains are to adopt those speech patterns as our own.

    Also, as far as realism goes, I heard one writing teacher say that all dialogue in fiction is an idealization of how people talk, not how they actually do talk. Most people’s speech is full of false starts, wrong words, repetition, and the like, but most writers don’t feel compelled to make their characters talk like that.

    And you know, I find the simple statement “He swore” to be an acceptable substitute, if a character absolutely must swear. If I’m reading, I’m reading for the story. I find real life to be an adequate source for realism.

    • I agree with you there! I really do! Honestly, when I read curse words in a book–I can take some, but if it’s constant and the real harsh ones, I have to put it away. I’m around cussing too much in reality, I don’t really want it in “my” escapism.

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