Profanity in my prose

Faydra D. Fields
By Faydra D. Fields January 21, 2013 00:00

Profanity in my prose

This was originally posted on another one of my blogs, which is why it already has a few comments.

I recently did a content editing and enhancement job for a client.

Based on the subject matter of her story—drugs, murder, street life—I interjected a few (about four or five) profane words into the dialogue.

They just fit with the tone of the scenes.

When my client got the revisions, she asked me to remove the profanity, which I did.

She said that even though she uses profanity, she doesn’t use it around her children. From that, I assumed she was telling me that her children would be reading her work.

It made me think about my own writing.


I personally don’t use profanity. I gave it up years ago.


I’m not my characters, and my characters aren’t me.

Some of my characters say profane words. They’re not words I use in everyday language, but…

I’m not my characters, and my characters aren’t me.

My characters are like people I know.

Some of my family members and friends use profanity, even though I don’t. Their language is a reflection of/on them, and they’re still my family and friends.

Ultimately, choice of language is a personal preference, and I wasn’t going to dare tell my client she should have profanity in her writing just because I thought it fit the subject matter.

For me, though, if one of my characters will appear more believable to my reading audience if he/she uses profanity, then I’ll let him/her speak in his/her natural voice.

It’s not me saying the words. I’m just bringing my characters to life as they are and not forcing my own personal choices onto them.

Someone might ask, “Well, what if you do a public reading of your work, and the character says a bad word? Do you say it when you read it?”

My answer: I either choose a passage that doesn’t have any profanity, or I read the passage with the profanity since I’m essentially verbally quoting the character speaking in my book.

What do you think about all this? I’d like to know.

Faydra D. Fields
By Faydra D. Fields January 21, 2013 00:00
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  1. Donna R. Wood November 28, 12:20

    I struggled with the idea of using profanity in Sticks and Bones. After much consideration, I decided to make the teens believable to other teens, I had to include it. I tried reading it outloud without and it sounded fake. I don’t use profanity either, but the reality for authors is as you say, in the character.

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  2. Chela November 28, 19:35

    I agree with you. The best writing comes when we allow characters to be who they are without trying to censor them. Often that will mean no profanity, but sometimes it will. If we try to force the matter one way or the other, the dialogue will not sound authentic. And when the dialogue becomes strained and artificial, it kills the flow of the story.

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  3. Kimberly Ranee Hicks December 7, 07:55

    My first novel, my character June was a spitfire and used profanity all the time because that’s the person she was. I concur that when I write, I’m representing my characters in the way they present themselves to me, so if profanity is a part of what makes them who they are, I will use it. Some of my readers were turned off by June’s language, but they did admit that it made her more believeable because I laid the foundation of what she was about, and if I hadn’t stuck to that, my readers would have felt robbed and insulted because I didn’t stick to the character’s personality. Many people don’t realize these types of things have to be taken into consideration when you’re writing, and I’m a true believer in being true to my characters and also myself! Great question. P.S. Funny, though, Mello was just the opposite of June. He never used profanity, not ever! I was elated to know that my readers could see the distinct differences in my characters, so I wasn’t upset by the comments some made about the book because they were talking about it, and anything that will promote healthy discussion is an honor to any author, so I relished in knowing they enjoyed the story and even the things they didn’t like, they still had an opinion. That’s why I write!

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  4. Tracy December 7, 16:15

    I agree with you Faydra. Sometimes the writing calls for certain things to bring the character to life.

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  5. Carl Purdon January 16, 10:34

    I don’t use strong profanity in my writing. Nothing I would not say in mixed company. As a reader, too much profanity is a signal of a lazy writer.

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  6. Massimo Marino January 21, 03:30

    Faydra, a writer is a story-teller. If a character is a dock-worker he will not say “Sorry, my bad, Sir.” or “I beg your pardon.” Profanity or not profanity the issue is whether a writer is able to give life to a character so to be believable, scenes and dialogues included. Characters will do and act in ways we would never do in our life because THEY ARE NOT US (us as in the writers). If my character is a whore, it does not mean I am supporting prostitution, or if I write about a serial-killer that killing is acceptable.

    And if my character is a gang member, he will say F* you, MotherF* and a pimp will call his girls appropriately.

    Hiding, and making everyone talk Victorian politically correct dialogues means you’re not a writer, you’re just pretending. Sorry to be blunt.
    OR, you are writing children books and your characters are fairies, magicians, and talking bears.

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    • Faydra Deon January 21, 03:56

      Thanks for your comment, Massimo!

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    • C. Casey Gardiner March 19, 02:12

      My characters are fairies, magicians and talking bears, and they ALL swear.

      To add to this, I think you need to take a look at what exactly profanity is; what it used to be, what it has become, and how we use it (if we use it).

      Profanity is a necessary function of language.

      Profanity is emotionally charged.

      Profanity is socially unacceptable, yet still in heavy use by all tiers of society.

      Profane words all go through a life-cycle in language, where they begin as either heretical concepts, bodily function descriptors or euphemisms for older, lesser used profanities. Over time, most if not all profanities will lose their original, potent meaning and be thought of as funny and innocent, antiquated words and phrases. Before they do, though, they remain some of the strongest societal taboos in any culture.

      The underlying reason for this (if there is a reason) is that observing or repeating these words or phrases is an admittance for condoning any beliefs or acts associated with them. Such a unanimous fear and revulsion of a simple written or spoken word is the height of magical thinking (the word-as-talisman), and can easily explain why teenagers and other generally powerless populations are drawn to their observation and use.

      I mean, do you get it? Do you see why kids swear and parents hide swears from them? It’s all about control. If you limit the means of someone being able to express an idea, you control their thinking. This also explains why kids will learn swearing anyway, no matter what their parents do, and why little kids who don’t know any bad words at all will invent their own, (which to our experienced ears sound funny and innocent.)

      Knowing all this, the best use for profanity in dialogue, as in daily life, is to emphasize a point. An f-bomb (what a potent weapon!) can be used with the same emotional intensity as an exclamation point, but it carries with it an inherent message of helplessness. Other words act differently, and one could compare using profanity in writing as similar to using different spices in cooking. The occasional B-a-s-i-l can work wonders with fish, but too much N-u-t-m-e-g can ruin your appetite.

      Every dish is different, and ultimately the only thing that matters is if, when you’re done cooking, the meal is still palatable. All that comes before is craft. All that comes after is reception.

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  7. Chip Etier January 21, 07:01

    In real life, people curse.
    In real life, events often cause people to say things that they might not normally say.
    Sometimes we sanitize our speech in progress. (George Carlin had a routine in which he pointed out that “shoot” is just “shit” with two “Os” in it.)
    Sometimes we don’t hold back.
    As writers should we expect our readers to suspend their disbelief to the point that they’ll accept a sanitized book, a Pollyanna world in which no one curses in any situation?
    I think not.

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  8. Monica Mathis-Stowe January 21, 08:52

    Writers should know their characters before their fingers touch the keyboard. When you’re telling a story, you can’t let other people’s opinions dictate how you tell the story. Write it with your characters in mind. Let them tell you how the story should play out and you’ll be amazed at how amazing the story will be. Sometimes profanity is needed for the scene and other times it isn’t. If you fully understand your characters, you, the writer, will know what is needed to tell their story.

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  9. Karen Prince January 21, 10:32

    Hi Feydra,

    I am totally with you on that. It seems so silly to have people doing grownup things and then saying “Oh shoot”

    I hadn’t really given it much thought but the way I have set up my YA fantasy series it barely comes up at all so I won’t be offending the delicate of ear and the whole thing still feels authentic, so lucky me.

    But if I were writing “Glee” for instance, profanity would definitely creep in.

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  10. JJ Alleson January 21, 11:23

    I have an erotic romance fantasy, which is written in archaic style. One of the lords in it is particularly foul mouthed.

    That’s not my style – it’s his.

    Writers need to recognise their characters’ development and sometimes just go with the flow. Otherwise they’re simply cheating the story, the reader, and themselves.

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