Some of us use them every day—or every other sentence—while some of us would never think to utter one. Profanity, obscenities, cursing, swearing, or expletives in fiction, whatever you choose to call them, it’s undeniable they affect everyone differently. With that in mind, many writers worry whether they should include them in their work. The answer is, like with most things, it depends on what you’re writing.
The first thing you need to consider sounds obvious, but it actually trips some people up. Keep in mind both the genre in which you’re writing and your intended audience. Your audience expects different things if your book’s a Christian fiction novel compared to a gritty crime drama, for instance. Similarly, as you know, people do not expect to find foul language in children’s or YA fiction—certainly not the more extreme words.
If you want to go the traditional publishing route, be sure to do your research. Different publishers have different rules about the use of expletives in fiction, and even book agents all have different opinions on the matter. While you can watch your language use for publishers, it is harder to cater your work to an agent in that regard.
What do you want to convey?
Readers always bring their own biases to your work. It’s your job as a writer to decide when to affirm their biases and when to turn their expectations completely upside-down.
Like it or not, many people still consider the use of vulgarities a sign someone is inarticulate and/or low-class—despite studies showing there is no correlation. You can use this to your advantage if you want a character to appear a bit dense, or you can subvert a reader’s assumption by having your character describe their scholarly pursuits just after a profanity-filled rant. Side note: filmmaker Jeffrey Stoltzfus’ article Does swearing mean you’re unintelligent? is a great read if you’re interested.
In addition to reader bias, remember a hierarchy of “bad words” exists. It varies from culture to culture, and each subculture within has their own language rules with varying permissions and restrictions for the use of such words. This hierarchy dictates the impact a word has both in terms of the target’s reaction and the reactions of those who simply hear the word used.
“You’re such an ass.”
“You’re such a cunt.”
There’s a bit of difference in the two, isn’t there? I guarantee, especially in the U.S., at least one person is surprised to even see the second word. The same rules apply to your writing. How offensive a word is considered affects not only the response you write but also the reactions of your reader.
Setting the Tone
You’re never going to please everyone, nor should you make an attempt to do so. Some people don’t want to read profanity of any kind ever. While not required, give consideration to this. You don’t need to open your first page with an expletive, of course, but if you’re writing something R-rated, it might be a good idea to show that within the first chapter.
In any work, the goal is to form three-dimensional characters with realistic motivations, goals, mannerisms, dialogue, and all the other things that make us human. You have many tools at your disposal to create your characters, extending to the use of expletives in fiction.
Let’s use two extremes for examples: one character is a devout, Catholic nun named Sister Sophia and the other is a high school boy in a garage band named Brad. Thanks to your own preconceived notions, you already know which of the two is more likely to say “fuck” several times.
Not only do you have to think about whether your characters use such language, you have to think of how people curse in your work. If you’re writing present-day or historical fiction, this is as simple as doing some research on which words and terms are the most appropriate. If you write something set in fourteenth-century Italy, your character would never call someone a douchebag. Your reader would think it ridiculous, and their immersion would be shattered.
In the case of fantasy, you need to create your own rules during your world building process. How common is profanity? Who uses it? Which of your characters would never curse? Which words commonly used today are also used in your story’s universe? Which don’t exist there? Are you going to make up fantasy-specific words? Et cetera.
Once you have the rules figured out, make sure you adhere to them. Not only does it help cement the reality you’ve created, but it means you’ll know when readers will and won’t expect expletives to appear.