I have an unusual suggestion for how to bring reality to the world of you book: swear more.
That isn’t advice you’ll hear very often from a YA writer. But let’s face it, the rhythm of normal speech (for teens and adults) is sprinkled with the occasional curse word for emphasis. For most people, swearing is part of normal conversation within our closest relationships. And what are books about besides close relationships? A book devoid of any kind of swearing can feel sanitary, unreal.
Even so, I’ve found myself avoiding those words, even if they feel right, worried that at some point it may cause an agent, an editor, a parent, or even a teen to take offense or be turned off to my work.
But there’s a way to incorporate casually foul language in a way that can actually work to enhance the world of the book: create your own.
The most simple version of this I’ve seen is in Battlestar Galactica. The show’s writers faced a dilemma: how to accurately portray the profane world of a military crew without incurring the wrath of television censors? The show simply substituted “frak” for… well, you know. Simple? Yes. Hilarious? Often. But the word ensures that the show’s writers can keep the dialogue of their hardened pilots and mechanics appropriately gritty and is one of the most persistent reminders that the crew is not just a few dozen years in the future—they’re so removed from us that everything from their belief system to their swear words are different.
I’m reading The Twelve, the sequel to Justin Cronin’s The Passage. In Cronin’s post-apocalyptic vampire/zombie attack world, the word “flyer” is used to describe the post-humanoid creatures that the protagonists run from. It’s slang based on how the creatures can move—quickly, jumping high and far—and it makes sense that a colloquial term for the vampires would segue quickly to become an exclamation, an expression of frustration, anger, pain. The vampire creatures dictate every moment of the survivors’ lives. Using the term derisively gives Cronin’s characters the chance to exert some small control over the situation. It isn’t much, but it’s almost all they have.
A great YA example of this is of this in YA is Kierstin White’s Paranormalcy series where the the main character Evie uses the term “bleep” in place of swearing1. What could come across as cheesy, White uses to endearing humorous effect, showing off Evie’s goofy personality at the same time.
Though those examples are all from the world of science fiction and/or paranormal, I think this approach could work for contemporary writers, too. Briefly while drafting I planned to look up old-fashioned insults that are not commonly used for a character who is obsessed with historical documentaries2. Ultimately the character changed and it wasn’t necessary anymore, but those word choices would have shown a lot of her personality, and added some silly (if obscure) humor.
Down the road if you find yourself pausing where you might normally insert a swear word into normal conversation, think deeply about what your character would use in that situation. What represents frustration to them? To the people of their world? What is the most angering or insulting thing to that person or to their society? It’s a great way to think about the world your characters live in, and a good alternative if more run-of-the-mill profanity makes you nervous.
What do you think? Do you have any other examples of movies, books, or TV shows that use their own uniquely obscene language? Have you worried over using swear words in your books?
- White talks about her decision to do that here ↩
- And I know all you Whedon fans are hunting for your Loki .gifs now. I didn’t end up using any antiquated swear words in my WiP, but thanks to The Avengers I did get to use a certain olde English word in a winning bout of Scrabble. See if you can find it…! ↩