Good dialogue not only succeeds in moving the plot forwards but is often one of the things that makes a character memorable long after a reader finishes a story.
The way your characters express themselves can say a ton about them, and the discovery of their voice is often a complex process with many components at work.
One such element is the words they favor, which might include a dash of vulgarity or a heaping spoonful.
Cursing is a part of life, whether we intend for it to be or not, and exploring your characters' habits adds another facet to their development.
Determining how your characters swear, the frequency at which they do, and why has its intricacies and plenty to take into account, and this upload is here to break some of them down.
As the subject matter suggests, there is going to be profanity throughout this post.
Reader discretion is advised.
Firstly, let's establish some guidelines for deciding if it makes sense to include swearing in your writing or if it is something you would do better to avoid.
Language Barriers and Boundaries
Everyone has their limits and their comfort zones. This is especially true for profanity. Some have no problem shooting the shit, while others feel offended by an utterance of "Dang" because of the implications behind it. Replacing is not always the same as omitting.
When on the air at my college's radio station, we had to abide by FCC guidelines. DJs were never allowed to swear under any circumstance. If our show occurred during the safe harbor hours (10PM-6AM), we could be a little more lenient provided we weren't only playing explicit music. Most shows were hosted outside of this time frame because the Campus Center closed around midnight, which meant we were either playing radio edits or attempting to censor live on the air (which was not ideal).
Although the FCC has a list of words deemed obscenities, our station had a few extra additions including "Goddamn." Even though "Damn" was typically fine, "Goddamn" was a different line our faculty advisor felt we shouldn't cross. It's like "Oh my God!" compared to "Oh my gosh," so to speak.
Thus, playing "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" meant closing the "——damn door" which was not as much fun but better than the risk of a listener filing a complaint.
Though they may seem arbitrary, understanding these boundaries and the way they shift is worth doing because yours might differ from your characters'.
Figuring out your comfort level, those of your characters, and those of your intended reader makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved.
The easiest way to determine how much foul language, if any, can or should appear in your writing is your audience. Two factors can play into this: age, which I'll cover in the next point, and the genre you are writing in.
Some types of stories are better suited for profanity than others.
Horror, thrillers, and suspense, for example, are known for being grittier so a tough-as-nails detective dropping swears will not feel out of place.
But if that detective is at the center of a romance novel or a cozy mystery, having her do so may not be as appropriate.
A reader who picks up an inspirational romance and is met with a character spouting off F-bombs, even if it's the author's way of demonstrating the way they were before rediscovering their faith or something of that nature, might be taken aback if not put off entirely.
On the other hand, seemingly-out-of-nowhere swearing can have its place. In a romance playing off the good-girl meets bad-boy trope, the former testing out adult language in the bedroom with her love interest by asking him to fuck her instead of making love to her can produce an amusing exchange. Or it can emphasize when a character is really pissed off because they normally don't call people "pricks."
Even though there are moments where swearing can work, recognizing the conventions of the genre and the expectations of the reader is important for making your book an enjoyable read.
Gauge the Age of Your Reader
As with the genre you're writing in, the age category your story fits into determining what is permissible when it comes to the language used throughout it.
Just a side note here: your book's age category is not its genre. These terms are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably, but they are two separate things. Genre refers to the kind of story, such as fantasy or horror, whereas categories indicate the audience it is intended for, like middle grade or young adults.
Age categories give a rough idea of how suitable a book is for a prospective reader.
Compare it to the regulations set by the Motion Picture Association (MPA).
MPA ratings are used to help parents decide if a film is appropriate for their children or personal preference based on several factors. These ratings might include brief descriptions regarding them, including cruel humor, nudity, violence, sensual content, and language.
Similar systems are in place for television and video games.
Of course, these guidelines are subjective. Some households may not allow their teens to play video games with an ESRB rating of T. Others might let their third-grader watch PG-13 movies.
In terms of books, the age category of yours may impact the way it is written. While some parents may not care if their middle schooler encounters the occasional vulgarity, it could make others hesitant or unwilling to allow their reading it.
Generally speaking, if you're writing for adults, having a protagonist tell the antagonist to "fuck off" or muttering "shit" now and then may not be a red flag in most genres.
PG-13 films are typically allowed one F-bomb but no more than that, and books written for that age range should probably be handled similarly with limited swearing even though obscenities are not unrealistic for these characters.
Books written for middle schoolers and younger, however, should be far more cautious with this kind of language.
Gauge the Age of Your Characters
Along with the age of your prospective reader, the age of a character can determine how much of a potty mouth they can be.
In my experience, adults swearing isn't too big of a deal, except for when in certain company or settings, like in a church or around children.
If the character in question is a teenager, the regulations for swearing can get a little blurry. In high school, it wasn't uncommon to hear classmates dropping F-bombs in the halls between classes, and it definitely revved up in college, so it wouldn't be too unrealistic to write teenage characters who do the same. However, as mentioned above, books written for teenage audiences typically limit how often their characters make use of this language (a standard which has been debated more than once).
As for kids, there might be instances like an accidental utterance of "damn it" because they don't know any better and just heard a parent saying it so often they just assumed it was no different than "whoops," as demonstrated on the episode of Arthur titled "Bleep." But if you're writing a book written for kids, it's usually considered better to not have that character be on the vulgar side unless it's absolutely permissible or called for.
As we get older, the list of words we find offensive may change. Phrases once considered offensive might become part of our everyday vernacular, and new ones may be added as society evolves (saying something is retarded, for example).
For many writers, establishing boundaries for their language comes naturally, but if you're not among them, laying some ground rules for your work can help you in the long run.
Now that we've covered a few guidelines to consider, let's look at things that could influence how you implement them.
There are plenty of opportunities to introduce expletives in your writing, and figuring out where to weave them in can help your characters come to life.
However, some approaches might be better than others depending on the scenario at play.
As I say with most writing-related things, rules are not always a one-size-fits-all deal. Some can be bent if not broken, and the degree to which they can be manipulated varies not only from one writer to the next but from one project to the next.
These are just a few things I've found myself considering when playing with profanity.
Where's the Swear?
Among the things to consider is where swears crop up in your writing.
With dialogue, it can be easy to slip in a curse here or there. Arguments, celebration, or just needing an adjective to hit the spot like no other, whatever the case may be, letting your characters fire off a vulgarity or two can be a way to make a moment more intense or realistic.
Some writers may also include this kind of language in their narration. This can work especially well in works written in the First-Person POV or deep Third-Person because it gives the reader a sense of how the character processes the world around them. Either can depend on the factors covered above as well as the overall style.
A sarcastic character thinking their mentor figure is "a fucking moron" for suggesting something even if they don't say it aloud can be good for a laugh as well as creating a certain tone in the narration.
If you're looking to be on a slightly tamer side, alternatives like "He spat out an oath" or "Vulgarities simmered on her tongue" can get the point across just as effectively, giving the reader an idea of what is being said without actually explicitly putting it in front of them.
Substitutions can be an opportunity for creativity and can say a lot about your characters.
Replacing foul language with similar words, like "Dang it" and "Darn it" in place of "Damn it," can be fun and memorable—and great for world-building as I'll touch on soon.
I went to school with a kid who would swear in Spanish thinking there would be a lower chance of getting in trouble around teachers who only spoke English.
My middle school banned "This sucks" and similar, which prompted phrases like "This inhales vigorously" to run rampant. Kids can get innovative with loopholes when the need arises, and some notable replacements can last as inside jokes and quirks well into adulthood.
Another common method is spelling out the word in question or hinting at it. This is where "H-E-double-hockey sticks," "F-bombs," and "the F-word" come into play. Not saying it outright but making the intention clear.
Prefacing the swear with "Pardon my French but..." is classic. Even if you plow full-speed ahead with the swear, putting a warning of sorts ahead of it can soften the blow. The same goes for a quick "excuse me" after the fact.
Thinking about your characters' censoring habits can be a fun means of getting to know them.
Dialects And Regions
Another outside influence that may impact the way your character speaks is the world around them—including their go-to obscenities.
That classmate I mentioned who swore in Spanish? The particular term they used was common in the Dominican Republic where their family is from.
A person's culture is among the things that make them who they are, and bringing that out in your characters helps bring them to life.
Commonly used terms can also assist in the world-building process.
My characters are prone to saying "blasted" this and "bloody" that because these are frequently associated with British colloquialisms, along with Regency-specific cant and insults.
"Go float yourself" from The 100 serves a big old FU referencing the laws governing the Ark and the execution method of ejecting perpetrators into space a la Among Us.
Love it or hate it, Spongebob Squarepants does a phenomenal job of establishing a system for cursing under the sea with phrases including "Barnacles," "Nematodes," "Tartar Sauce," and just bleeping out an offensive word with a dolphin sound effect.
Introducing readers to the slang of your story's world, whether based on a real location or one of your own creation, gives them a sense of the culture and life of those residing in it—and can be fun to incorporate in author merch!
Each of the above notes applies in varying degrees but are equally worth considering for your writing.
In fact, you could say they're tips I swear by.