On The Use Of Strong Language In YA

Warning: this post contains some cursing to demonstrate my points. Anything that one wouldn’t find in, say, a Harry Potter book is censored, but still, if you’re easily offended by that sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend reading this post.

I, for one, have never understood the controversy over swearing in books intended for teenagers. It’s nothing they haven’t heard, and likely used, when talking to their friends, or haven’t been exposed to from films and TV. It’s certainly not as if strong language is used gratuitously in most YA literature–I can understand why parents/educators and literary critics alike would be opposed to swearing just for the sake of swearing. When well used, however, it serves a purpose: impact and realism.

Suppose that, as a writer, you wanted to make your readers hate a certain character. You wanted to make them feel angry and defensive. Consider these two options for a bit of dialogue:

He glared at me and insulted me.

Yes, it gets your point across, but it still allows your reader to skim over it with little emotional reaction.

He glared at me. “You little bitch,” he spat.

Not only does this version allow for more description, but it gets that emotional reaction you’re looking for. Think about Mrs. Weasley’s final duel with Bellatrix in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That stopped readers in their tracks. Sometimes, when looking for impact, a choice swear is the only way to go.

Then it comes to realism. Say your main character is a 17-year-old drug addict who dropped out of high school and lives in a rundown apartment with her ailing mother (not to stereotype, but imagine a typical hardened YA character). Do you think this embittered and jaded teen is going to be using elementary-school substitutes for curse words? With this character in mind, which piece of dialogue sounds more realistic?

“This piece of junk isn’t working. Now everything is messed up.”

or

“This piece of s**t isn’t working. Now everything is f**ked up.”

Strong language can be a necessity to develop characters’ personalities and set the scene, and so there’ll be more or less of it depending on what type of story it is. If it’s a fantasy set in the Middle Ages, the cursing might be decidedly more Shakespearean, or perhaps it’ll sound like the French Taunter from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” If it’s a fun story about a bunch of nerdy types, maybe everyone will be cursing each other out in Latin. Strong language is just part of the literary landscape, and authors should be free to use it at their discretion.

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16 responses to “On The Use Of Strong Language In YA

  1. I wanted to use a gif here that just has a fictional character (I have several to choose from) pointing upwards and saying THIS. And then realised that I was on WordPress not Tumblr.
    My thoughts exactly. My mum read through my first five chapters when I was preparing to submit for something and seemed upset at some of the swearing (and it’s not even that bad). But I think that was because it’s me and she’d get annoyed if I swore in every day life. The thing is, I’m not my characters. i don’t agree with everything they do or say and I don’t condone everything they do or say (because they’re freakin’ psychopaths) but they say it.
    It can also be a good way of building up their accent or background. For example, my character Bronwyn is Welsh so she says ‘bloody’ a lot; Aifa’s Irish (well, she’s not, but she is. It’s complicated. She’s a fairy) so she says ‘fecking’.

    • I’m honored that anyone would want to use a “THIS” gif on something I wrote, even if it is on the wrong blogging platform.
      Using strong language to build a character’s accent/background is another good point. It can help make a character’s way of speaking unique and identifiable.

  2. WOOT! for this post. Perfect. Agree with every word. Teens swear, teens say the F-word; I get that they’re sometime censored so it’ll appeal to a family audience (i.e. DIVERGENT and every other well marketed YA title of 2011-2012), but it bothers me when people complain about it. It’s about teens, isn’t it? We don’t go around saying “darn it” and “shoot” all the time. 😀

  3. I totally agree with you on this. In my young adult manuscripts, there are characters who swear, and those who don’t. The language we use to express ourselves depends on a lot of things, like personality, age, upbringing, beliefs, our circle of friends… and sometimes on how badly someone just ticked us off. Our characters must also speak in a way that matches who they really are.

    Thanks for a great post! 🙂

  4. Its like the Catcher in Rye! Salinger uses “god damn” or “dammit” on every page, if he hadn’t done that then we wouldn’t really know exactly how Holden’s feeling. So I agree completely with this statement. 🙂

  5. Personally, I hold that characters can and will swear– it’s life, after all, as you said– but I just don’t put it in. I’ll say “he swore”, stick in an explosive action alongside that, and it gets the point across just as well. I don’t like it when people swear, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it when someone doesn’t swear, so I just try to please everyone and don’t write out swear words. Occasionally I’ll put in “Oh, ****”, but not often. Altogether, swearing is unrefined (if this statement were in a comment on my blog, I’d be cracking up right now– it seems like something a spoiled princess would say while stamping her foot), and it lowers the quality of the writing style of the book. Just because it’s a part of life doesn’t mean it’s good.

    • Usually, if all the character is saying is a curse word, nothing else, I’ll say “she swore/cursed.” Writing it out is gratuitous and does nothing for the story–I’ll agree with you there. But if it’s an integral part of some longer dialogue, I maintain that swearing can be necessary for realism.

  6. I pretty much agree with that, Liam. I guess… I guess I think swearing just to swear is stupid. I hardly swear at all IRL. But used SPARINGLY it can make characters more realistic.

  7. readingwritingnovels

    I agree with nevillegirl. I only use swears sparingly in my writing, just as I do IRL. But I agree that I do hate it when people go on and on about how immoral it is, because normal people swear, and there’s no reason to pretend that they don’t.

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