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How necessary is "colorful" language for lending a sense of maturity to a story?

Sydnie

Acolyte
As I get older, I find myself feeling less inclined to have my characters swear. I generally avoided getting too vulgar to begin with, although I made pretty liberal use of "damn" and "hell" and the occasional "bastard". But even that much doesn't appeal to me these days. I just don't see it the way I used to, and don't feel like it adds anything valuable to the story.

That said, I'm also trying to be a little more mindful of my audience this time, and I dunno if the YA crowd would agree. I worry the story will come across as too "kiddy" for the intended audience if even the punks and creeps use schoolyard-approved language. (For example, there's an instance where an antagonist refers to an LGBTQ+ character as a "freak". This is definitely NOT the F-word he'd use in a more realistic interpretation of the scenario.)

So where to draw the line? It's not like I'm looking to invoke my inner sailor or anything. But can a story still be taken seriously even with a PG vocabulary? Or is it actually important to let the wannabe delinquent unambiguously call his rival an asshole? Lend me your insight, fellow writers!
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
You're going to get a variety of responses, but I'll start it off with this: the sub-genre is going to matter. If it's grimdark, that's one thing. Another if you're writing a classic fairly tale. I see you reference YA, but is your novel a YA novel, or are young adults merely a consideration? But that's audience, not genre.
 

pmmg

Vala
Draw the line wherever you want and feel comfortable with. I personally stand in the M*A*S*H level of swearing in my own novels (damn and hell are about it), and the swears used are somewhat made up based on their culture. In the same way that Wheel of Time used Blood and Ashes as their swear, I have something similar.

Personally, I am usually put off by authors frequently using language of this sort, and think them 'less' mature for the over use of it. So yeah, you get a vote for still being able to be taken seriously with less vulgar language from me.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
This is, I think, partly dependent on your target audience and partly dependent on your characterisation. If, like me, you write books for adults then it is OK to have swearing and bad language. But, it does need to be appropriate. As to what is appropriate and when, I'd ask you when you swear and why? For most people, swearing is about an emotional reaction to something or someone. That makes context all-important when deciding when your characters should swear or use other bad language. As to what they swear by, that depends on both your setting and the language you write in. Translating from Swedish to English, as is being done for my books at the moment, is fascinating in this respect. The way the characters swear is quite different in the two languages - but it is still needed in the context of the stories.
 

Sydnie

Acolyte
Mm, I guess what I'd say here is that it's less a question of, "How much swearing should I include?" and more, "Should I include swearing at all?" It's kind of my personal taste these days to keep it clean, but I worry readers would be pretty dismissive of it if the guy acting like a street thug never calls his opponent anything more scathing than "jerk". I more or less have an idea of how far to go once I cross the line, but I'd rather not cross it at all unless the story really needs it to be taken seriously.

As far as genre and audience...to be honest, this is still something I'm learning about. I've never given any real thought to audience before, and never said more about genre than "fantasy". I always just said that I wanted to write stories I would've wanted to read. I think it qualifies for a YA audience. It's about teens doing stuff I did or wanted to do at that age...but sanitized. And that's where my uncertainty on this particular topic comes in.
 

pmmg

Vala
You have to be true to the character. What does the character tell you they would say?

Might you be able to write something like this.

Ralph let our a stream of profanities, and then screamed at John, "Why one earth would you do that?"

"I don't know," said John. "Who care's, I don' have to answer to you."

Ralph cursed even more. He pushed John away. "We're done. I'm outta here."
 
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ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
PMMG took what is likely the correct approach for your situation - mention the swearing without including the actual words.

However, overdoing that could also be a bad thing, especially with characters who swear frequently.
 

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
You also need to be true to yourself. There's a lot of talk about pushing yourself and going outside of your comfort zone, but there's also something to say for creating something you're proud of and that you believe in.

To answer the original question: colourful language isn't needed to add a sense of maturity to the story. Subject matter, context, themes, and overall writing style are a lot more important.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
Ralph let our a stream of profanities, and then screamed at John, "Why one earth would you do that?"

I totally agree with this. This is a solid way to work around the issue. I also remember seeing a TV show or Movie where a kid hears their Dad unleash a verbal tirade of profanity, but we never hear the actual words. What happens is the Dad's voice gets muted, we see the kid's reaction to hearing the Dad go off, and there's a quick voice over relaying exactly what the kid is thinking.

Now in general, you don't need swearing. Lots of stories get by fine without them and don't feel Disney-fied. Sometimes swearing is the easy way out. It has its place, depending on story and character as others have mentioned. But at the same time, I don't have to use one word of profanity to get very-very "adult" in a story. A lot of times the overuse, or an ill-timed dropping, of a curse can make a story feel way more "kiddy" than not using any profanity at all. Because overuse comes off as try-hard, as in trying too hard to sound cool or adult.

So if you don't feel like using profanity, don't. If you're creative about it and think things through, I doubt anyone will miss it.
 
Adult, not adult, in many ways I think it's young people who think dialogue must have bad language, and there are plenty of readers who will be turned off by raunch. YA is way more about theme than language, in fact. You can have an adult book without f-bombs or even excrement and do just fine. But, at the same time, I get the weirdness of a thug not cussing. But, it's still doable.

I once had a screenplay where a character said, "Why say F-you when I can just pull a trigger?" it was the only use of the word in the story and I think it carried weight because of that. But, he was also a well-spoken killer, polite and respectful to most.
 

pmmg

Vala
I recall the first time I used Damn in my story, and because it had not appeared elsewhere (and only rarely since), it had a lot more power to it. I've never used an F word, and well...hell is not called that so it does not come up. But, I dare say, no one would confuse my story as being young adult. Its an adult tale. Just not a lot of swearing. Least not with the words that you could not say when George Carlin was doing stand up.

I always feel strange using many of those words anyway...for me, I have to question if they would really be in use in the time periods the story mimics. I am sure they were, but it breaks the fourth wall for me to use it. Feels too much like today's sensibilities leaking in. I am not sure if my MC has ever cursed.

I also recently commented that Stephen King uses swear words a lot, and it makes me think something about him beyond the page. I wish he would use far less of them. It does not make me feel his characters are more relatable.
 
Statistically, the F bomb is one of King's favorite words, heh heh, I wouldn't use it in my fantasy, it doesn't fit at all, but in a modern mob story? It works.
 

pmmg

Vala
Yeah...What can I say to Mr. King? His success speaks for itself.

I am just not a fan. His use of profanity is one of the things that puts me off. I think he lacks range, but...

Which is funny, cause I am not aware of any other author I feel the same way about. Others certainly use those types of sentence enhancers as well...but only Mr. King has gotten me to say...okay, already. Enough with that.
 

Aldarion

Inkling
Completely unnecessary in my opinion, though it can - if used well - add realism to the story. People in high-stress jobs such as soldiers and sailors tend to swear... well, like sailors.
 

Finchbearer

Minstrel
As I get older, I find myself feeling less inclined to have my characters swear. I generally avoided getting too vulgar to begin with, although I made pretty liberal use of "damn" and "hell" and the occasional "bastard". But even that much doesn't appeal to me these days. I just don't see it the way I used to, and don't feel like it adds anything valuable to the story.

That said, I'm also trying to be a little more mindful of my audience this time, and I dunno if the YA crowd would agree. I worry the story will come across as too "kiddy" for the intended audience if even the punks and creeps use schoolyard-approved language. (For example, there's an instance where an antagonist refers to an LGBTQ+ character as a "freak". This is definitely NOT the F-word he'd use in a more realistic interpretation of the scenario.)

So where to draw the line? It's not like I'm looking to invoke my inner sailor or anything. But can a story still be taken seriously even with a PG vocabulary? Or is it actually important to let the wannabe delinquent unambiguously call his rival an asshole? Lend me your insight, fellow writers!
Omitting swear words wouldn’t necessarily even be noticed. Some of the darkest books I’ve read haven’t had a single swear word in them at all, but creative use of the English language is a skill, and you can use dark descriptive words as alternatives to swear words? I’m not a young adult anymore though so…

In another note, my husband used to be a sailor, and he doesn’t particularly have a sailors tongue.

I on the other hand…
 
According to the guy who wrote Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve, F-ing is King's third favorite word (aside from the obvious things like "the") which in fact puts him into a list of people with variants of F in their top three. Elmore Leonard is the only one with F-ing at #1, I think. In the short list offered, 7 authors have an F variant in their top 3.

One stat I forgot, but I found not too shocking, is that James Patterson uses the most cliches. The number is insane, 160 cliches per 100,00 words.
 

Righmath

Minstrel
Whilst I agree with the people above, I actually do enjoy swearing in a book. It gives me some weird thrill or rush of adrenaline when a punchy line is inserted. But perhaps I'm just some low brow troglodyte 🤣
 
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