Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bleep: Swearing in YA

I wouldn't be a writer if I believed words were just words. I believe words have power, that they can affect hearts and minds. That words can change reality and create new worlds.

It should come as no surprise that I have many thoughts on the subject of swearing, especially in books intended for teens. Language continues to be one of the reasons books are banned or challenged by parent groups. We rate movies and slap stickers on CDs to warn about the use of certain words that we feel are inappropriate for children. Swearing is offensive. It's supposed to be.

Bria, the protagonist in THE ART OF FALLING, is 17. As I wrote her, as I dove into her head and examined how she would think and feel and react, I had in mind a 15-year-old reader. I wrote this story for that 15-year-old. And I don't believe there is a 15-year-old left in America who doesn't know a few swear words. Does that mean I threw them around without thought? No. I carefully considered every single word in this story - the mundane and the profane. Every word choice was made for a very specific reason. 

In real life, I don't swear. I never picked up the habit. I like to surround myself with beauty and find curse words and their meaning ugly. There are times of extreme distress or pain when I pull them out (like during labor with my second kid), but it's rare. When I swear, it makes the people around me pay attention. They work wonders as pain relief (It's scientific. Look up the Mythbusters episode on it!) and they have shock value.

In my writing, it's a different story. For one thing, my characters aren't me. If I wrote every character with my moral compass instead of their own, it would get old fast. It would create a barrier between my stories and my readers - a barrier I don't want. More importantly, when I do use swearing in my writing, it's for a purpose. It is meant to elicit a reaction from the reader. 

When writing for teens, my characters deal with things that are beyond their emotional and mental maturity. They're faced with situations that they are ill-equiped to handle. That's not a criticism because the fact is that they do handle their circumstances and learn and grow through them. However, they don't always have the ability to process like an adult would and sometimes shit or fuck is the best way to express something too big or too hard or too much to deal with. 

There are exactly two instances of the f-word in FALLING and I agonized over both. I could have replaced them with lesser swear words. I could have used effing. But even through my last round of edits, I couldn't change either one. It's a harsh sounding word with a harsh meaning, but in those two moments, I honestly believe it was the best way to express the complexity of what my characters were feeling. Given the infrequency of swearing in this story, that word is a signal to the reader to pay attention - something monumental is happening. 

I've said before that I feel no desire to write inspirational fiction, despite the way my faith shapes my life. Part of that is because it feels restrictive. I do want to write stories parents will feel comfortable giving to their children, but not to the point of censoring the story. I don't write explicit sex. I don't glorify violence. I think very carefully about the language I use. But to leave all reference to sex, violence or swearing out of books for teens does them a disservice. That is their reality. 

My point is this: we can either sanitize the world and create an environment that makes it even harder for kids to express their experiences or we can acknowledge the realities of a broken world. I expect some response from readers about the language. When one of my favorite bands (The Classic Crime) used the phrase hurts like hell in a song, some of their more sensitive listeners felt betrayed. The band responded by saying that if hell does indeed exist, it would certainly hurt. When my future readers question why I chose to include swearing in my book, my answer is this: because it was the best way to tell the story I wanted to tell - a story I hope will mean something to that 15-year-old reader struggling to figure out who she is and what she wants and how to deal with a life that expects more from her than she can handle. It's as simple as that.

How do you feel about swearing in books for teens? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Swearing is a very difficult thing to figure out in YA books. I do love your point on how for teenagers sometimes swearing is the easiest way to express themselves when they don't have the sort of adult mental capacity to deal with the situation.

    I think it depends a lot on the story you're telling, and the characters who are in it. The narrator of my book is a 15-year-old boy, so when I was creating his voice, swearing just seemed to come naturally. Then again, his story is more of an adult one. If I had been writing for teenagers, I probably would have toned it down a bit.

  2. Love this post. Like you, I don't really swear in real life, but especially when I was in high school, I was a rarity on that front; where I think swearing is the genuine voice for a character (and I usually do) I will use it without a second thought. I actually recently wrote a character I opted to make an active non-swearer and died at how many I'd unconsciously written in and had to revise.

    My feeling is that books should feel as authentic as possible. There are definitely books that lack swearing and I don't notice, and ones that have swearing and I don't notice. I believe in, above all, being true to your context.

  3. I completely agree---I don't think there is a single 15-year-old who doesn't know swear words or actively swear. I swear probably more than I should, but I don't make my characters fit my mold. I think a YA book without swear words---especially contemporary fiction---should be as authentic as possible. A great example of this is Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park. While the teen don't swear often, most of the words are spoken by the adults around them, but even so it's been banned from certain libraries and school districts because of the amount of swearing.

    Swear words are a tough subject. As my grandmother, who's native language is German, said "Words are just words, but the meaning behind them is everything" and I think that applies to writing in general, just just YA. Some words have more power than others. It can be damning, or damn good.

  4. Life isn't neatly packaged, is it? Sometimes there are bad words. Sometimes, broken syntax and bad grammar. I'll always want the author of a book I find my face in to choose the right words, even if they are blue.

  5. I love this post. I feel the same exact way. It makes the book more real and the meaning more concise. I hate when people use curse words like they're every day words. Now that bothers me. I have more than a few instances in my book where I use curse words, but there's not a lot.

  6. I love how insightful this post is. I love how gently and thoughtfully you are in your approach. I'm guilty of swearing at times, but in my YA book I minimized the swearing because it just didn't feel true to my characters. I totally agree that the most important thing is to stay true to your characters.