Discussion: Is Cursing in YA Novels Acceptable?

Photo credit: Jennifer R. Graevell Photography (Flickr)
As some of you may have guessed by my reading habits displayed for all to see on Goodreads, or based off my not-so-subtle theme of nearly all YA books in my book reviews, I write YA novels. Over the past few months I've seen this question that's really made me pause and think come up again and again, namely, is cursing acceptable in books meant for teenagers?

The thing is, there isn't a straightforward right or wrong answer. YA writers face an interesting dilemma, because while we know that most teenagers do indeed use less than flowery language, some wonder if using foul language in books (or other media) just perpetuates the problem.

Personally, I avoid cursing. I make a point to keep this blog clean of any foul language and rarely do I share any posts on Twitter/tumblr/Facebook/what-have-you that contains any sensitive four-letter words. But as I progressed through my journey as a YA writer, I slowly had to come to accept that while I rarely cursed, that didn't mean that my characters couldn't (or wouldn't) either. My censorship of their language felt forced and unrealistic.

You see, we are not our characters, nor are we required to always agree with everything our characters do, think or say, however, that doesn't necessarily save us from the argument that cussing in literature can influence teenagers and young readers in a negative way.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg argument—do teenagers curse because they hear and read it in the media, or is the cussing that they're exposed to in books, music, video games and movies negligible because by the time they start exposing themselves to that kind of media, they've already heard it?

I don't have the answers, but I think it calls for an interesting discussion, so I turn it over to you guys.

What do you think? Is cursing in YA novels acceptable? Does it negatively influence readers, or is it just a part of creating realistic teenage characters?

50 comments:

Glen C Strathy said...

The dilemma is whether to depict life accurately or do what moralists prefer, present life as they want it to be. Art versus propaganda.

SusanKayeQuinn said...

I keep it clean personally, but my characters do all kinds of things I would never consider, or vehemently oppose. Especially the bad guys. :) But I don't buy the notion that "teenagers curse, have sex, and cut themselves" as reasons why my characters have to do these things. There are just as many (more in fact) teens that don't do those things. Teens are not a monolith, any more than adults are, and I write my characters to be themselves.

Emily Mead said...

Well, I'm a teen...and I write YA. It depends from character to character, and their situation...as well as the genre. Contemporary YA, for instance, tends to have more swearing than Hunger Games or other sci-fi.

The reality is that a lot teens swear, so I do incorporate some of that into my writing. Most teens are reading adult books anyway (especially the ones that write!), so it's not as though we're completely innocent. In fact books are more often than not positive influences.

Is it just us crazy Aussies that use "swearing"? Probably.

Heather Bryant said...

Like you said, WE ARE NOT OUR CHARACTERS and I think that's the most important point here. Yes, as writers we need to have some understanding of how we could potentially affect our readers but at the same time that's not WHY we're writing. We're writing to tell a story. Cursing shouldn't be there for the sake of adding drama or sounding edgy, but it SHOULD be there for the sake of character envelopment or plot. If it fits into either of those categories, I'd say go with it. In my WIP, I'd say there's a whole five curse words and they come from three different characters. One of them curses casually, one under stress, and the other with frustration.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

My characters curse. If they didn't, given their situations, they wouldn't sound authentic. But I write upper YA, and it's mostly the guys that curse the worst. If I were to write for the younger YA audience, my characters wouldn't curse, even if my 12 year old does. Oh, and he didn't learn to curse from YA books. He learned to curse because of his friend who don't read books. They see adults swear and think if they swear they'll sound cool and grownup, too.

Project Savior said...

The problem I have with cursing on the written page is it stands out so much on the page that realistic amount of cursing in an argument seems repetitive.
Two college girls arguing in real life might use the b* word six or seven times. You read that and it will be all you see. It will actually take the reader away from the hate and anger.
It's a little unrealistic but toning down the cursing and using creative substitutes, one girl calling the other micro-mammaries instead of b*, makes the intent of the cursing come through better than realistic use of curse words.

Emilyann Girdner said...

Good topic. So far I have restricted the cursing to one word. This issue has been particularly challenging for me because I write epic YA fantasy. In a sense it is easier because some of those words dont make sense in my world. Interesting topic and one I also don't have all the answers to.

Thanks for the great posts. I follow you over at my blog www.anythingimagined.blogspot.com :)

Patricia said...

My characters curse, but not much and it often depends on the situation and character speaking. I don't want it to come off as glorifying swearing. Also, my characters aren't swearing because they think it's appropriate for the situation, but they're reacting and not considering the word before it pops out.

Matthew MacNish said...

If a YA novel doesn't have an f-word in the first ten or so pages, I'm probably not going to enjoy it that much.

Yesenia Vargas said...

"I slowly had to come to accept that while I rarely cursed, that didn't mean that my characters couldn't (or wouldn't) either. My censorship of their language felt forced and unrealistic."



You read my thoughts exactly, Ava! While I may be uncomfortable writing curse words, if it's true to the characters, then it'll make the story more realistic, IMHO. Therefore, I've started using them here and there. I think only a few are necessary. Too much and it'll be too much for the reader or just be annoying, I think.

Ava Jae said...

Hmm, interesting thoughts. I'm not sure I would quite compare it to propaganda--there are perfectly valid reasons both for not including swear words and for using them. On the other hand, I do agree that trying to depict life accurately (within various degrees, depending on the genre) is important, so it makes for an interesting dilemma. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Glen!

Ava Jae said...

I agree that just because teenagers do things doesn't mean every teenage book character has to--the important part, as you said, is that the characters act like themselves. For some of them, that might mean some cursing and for others, not so much. Thanks for stopping by, Susan!

Ava Jae said...

Well firstly, I can assure you that it's more than you "crazy Aussies" that use swearing. :)
I do agree that it largely varies from character to character, and even book to book. It certainly shouldn't be overdone, but the lack of swearing altogether with some characters starts to feel forced. It all depends.

Daniel Swensen said...

I'm not a parent, but I think to erase profanity from YA is trading realism for ideology. Kids swear. Kids are learning, exploring, pushing boundaries, and that includes language. All the swear words I ever learned came first from my grade-school classmates. To erase profanity from YA is to, on some level, create a world of perfect parents who managed to shield their kids from all the bad words... which isn't very interesting.


Swearing has no inherent virtue, really, but I think that whether or not it's included in fiction should derive from character and story, not from an authorial desire to keep kids from corrupting themselves. Just my opinion.

Daniel Swensen said...

...although if none of your character ever exhibit certain common behaviors, then they kind of are a bit of a monolith when it comes to those behaviors. Which is neither good nor bad by itself, really.

Chase Night said...

Teenagers curse. Probably more than adults. Because it's still fairly new to them and fun. Then you get older and you've said the words so much that they aren't that interesting anymore and they start to fade out. (Sometimes. Some people always talk like a fifteen year old.) In the end, words are just words. There's nothing inherently wrong about any word, unless it's a racial or sexual slur. I avoid those, but a few curse words aren't going to hurt anyone. That being said, a book where someone swears every other word is quickly going to turn me off for the same reason that a book that said "angel" every other word would turn me off. I'd just get bored seeing the same thing again and again.

Margaret Alexander said...

I definitely agree with that. Keeping it clean means we aren't influencing teens in a negative way. Although for those who would naturally behave that way, it gives us a challenge, as Ava said: do we censor them to keep other teens from being negatively influenced or do we stay true to the character? For YA, I believe it's more important for us to set a standard for teens than to create characters they shouldn't look up to. But that is completely up to the author. When I feel it's in character for someone to swear, I don't hide it. But, in general, I try not to overuse curse words.

RoweMatthew said...

I use curses freely, but not actually that often and I write for the middle and higher ends of the YA audience (another topic in itself!). However, I don't think it's wrong at all. The readers experience much worse in their daily lives. Frankly, also, the type of teenager who reads a book is generally intelligent enough to think about this and have their own opinions. Where as the teenagers who don't read books generally curse like cats meow. I don't think the cause can be identified (parents *cough*) but I'm sure it's not books!

Gene Lempp said...

While I'm with you on personal language, most days, I also have vast experience with teens thanks to my daughters. Some indeed do curse to a high degree. Others, never a single four-letter word in front of an adult. I think, based on my years of observations, that whether a YA character swears or not should be based solely on that characters personality. And maybe the environment they live in. While one could say this is an author choice, doing so makes the dialogue vanilla or forced, as you found out. The reality is that the world lives by no one persons standards, therefore, it makes good sense to write the character as they are rather than trying to enforce a personal moral code upon them.
Just my two cents. Great post, Ava.

Ava Jae said...

I think there's a difference between allowing our characters to curse and overusing curse words. Overuse isn't helpful in any way--not only does it make the writing repetitive, but it starts to bring extra attention to the swearing, and any time a word or phrase calls attention to itself, it brings the readers out of the writing. There definitely has to be a balance.

Ava Jae said...

You make a great point about not cursing for the sake of cursing--like everything in writing, there should be a reason for the choices we make, and particular word choices like cursing is certainly no exception.

Ava Jae said...

Good point about authenticity--that seems to be the main argument for allowing YA characters to curse (and for good reason).

Also, I think you're probably right that a lot of kids learn to swear because of their peers and the adults (and older siblings) that surround them.

Ava Jae said...

I agree that you don't want to overuse swear words, or it certainly starts to draw attention to itself, which will draw the readers out of the writing. Similar to "um" and "like," it's ok to include it, but including it to the same extent that people actually use can become distracting.

Ava Jae said...

You make a good point about not glorifying swearing--I think like many things in writing, if you're going to use it, it requires a balance and reason for being there.

Ava Jae said...

Well, there goes most of my bookshelf. :)

Ava Jae said...

A lot of people have brought this up and I agree--overusing it would quickly become distracting and start to pull the readers out of the writing. It definitely requires a balance.

Ava Jae said...

I absolutely agree that the decision should lie in the characters and the story itself. You also make an interesting point about creating a world with shielded characters--censoring our characters can have more of an effect than just keeping the language clean.

Author Steven said...

I generally don't swear in my books, but there is a contextual small swear word every once in a blue moon but nothing major. I don't like unnecessary swearing in movies especially when it is pointless and really doesn't add anything. It is an interesting thing to think about though because it is a bit of an important issue when writing YA. Although I don't necessarily write YA per se it is still applicable. :)


~Author Steven

Ava Jae said...

I agree that there has to be balance--repeating any word or phrase too often will draw attention to it, which then becomes distracting to the readers. Whether it's cuss words or something else entirely (like your "angel" example), we have to be careful not to overuse words or phrases.

Ava Jae said...

I don't think books are the cause of foul-mouthed teenagers, either. Environment, peers, parents, siblings, whatever the cause, I doubt books make it very high on the list. But it's still a consideration, because while I doubt it causes it, I suppose there could be an argument that media in general might aggravate the situation.

RoweMatthew said...

It comes down to censorship in the end, and censorship is wrong. Just because a few people can't do something responsibly doesn't mean it should be taken away from everyone. As authors we should be aware of the issue but I don't think much responsibility lies with us

Lynn Kelley said...

I'm here from Gene Lempp's Blog Treasures. He said the discussion thread is interesting, and I have to agree with him!


Ava, I went through the same process you did. Tried to avoid using cuss words here and there, but it wasn't true to the character or real life. It's an edgy read with some edgy characters. Keeping the cuss words to a minimum and using them when the scene calls for it adds more impact, in my opinion. It's a tough decision, though. I don't plan to publish my YA for at least a year since I mainly write middle grade books, so the swearing in my YA poses a problem for me. I might have to publish it under a pen name. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Ava Jae said...

I absolutely agree with you, Gene. "It depends" tends to be the answer to a lot of things in writing, and I think this is one of them, in this case, depending on the characters and the story.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Gene!

Ava Jae said...

A lot of people have mentioned this, and I think it's a good point--when the swearing is overdone, regardless of whether it's on the page or in the movies, etc., it becomes distracting and can even be irritating. If you do choose to include swearing, you definitely want to be careful not to overdo it.

Ava Jae said...

Firstly, thanks for stopping by, Lynn! So glad you enjoyed the post and the discussion--it certainly has been an interesting one. :)


You bring up an interesting point about swearing when it comes to writing for different age groups--I hadn't really thought about what the impact would be for a writer like yourself that writes primarily MG, then writes YA. It certainly adds another complication to an already interesting dilemma.

Ava Jae said...

Great points. While I do believe that some responsibility lies with us (if only in what impact our specific novels have), I don't know that censorship is the answer, either, for many of the reasons that have been discussed both in the post and in the comments. It's an issue to be aware of and one that we have to be careful not to overuse, should we choose to use it, but blatantly avoiding swear words in YA novels can sometimes backfire, depending on the story and the characters.


In the end, I think it depends on the characters.

Angela Halliday-Ackerman said...

I don't mind swearing as long as it's organic and not gratuitous. That said, I think some swears work better than others. Some don't work at all, like "shit". I don't know what it is, but it feels so...crass in books. I have hardly ever seen it where it feels like the 'right' thing.

Ava Jae said...

Interesting point! I don't think anyone else brought up the difference between various swear words. Personally I can't remember reading that particular swear word and thinking that it didn't fit, but it's an interesting thing to think about nonetheless.

Lauren I. Ruiz said...

I don't write YA, but if I did, I think I'd keep it clean almost always. For some reason I have the same principle as a businessperson--keep it clean--which is ironic considering how unhinged I am with swearing in my daily life!

Ava Jae said...

That is ironic! Just out of curiosity, why do you think you would completely avoid swearing then, if you don't mind swearing in your daily life?

Lauren I. Ruiz said...

Preserving innocence?! I don't know! Lol.


However, some people on here have put some real thought into this. Interesting discussion. :)

Ava Jae said...

Agreed--it's certainly been very interesting to see everyone's thoughts from both sides of the debate. There are a lot of valid points to consider both for and against it.

Knaks Plaplap said...

hahaha yes teens definitely curse because they read too many books. *laughs heartily while falling off a cliff*

Ava Jae said...

It's an epidemic, these reading teenagers...

Chris v said...

I remember being a teenager. And when I swore it was because I felt like it. Sometimes specifically because I knew it would upset my mom if she heard me. I don't think teens swear because they read it, or because they're expected to. I think they do it because they want to try it out and see how it feels to say it, or get a reaction from someone, or because that's how they hear others talk. Or sometimes just because.

I think written characters should swear when they feel like it, or not swear because they don't like to. But I don't think we should censor them, because then the character ends up feeling forced or stilted. I'm not saying all characters should swear. Not all teens swear. But I certainly don't think there's a world out there where some won't choose to for whatever reason.

Sometimes teens do things and feel things even they don't understand. I look back on my own teen years, and there are moments that even now I have no idea why I did what I did... So trying to understand every single motivation for why kids do what they do - including swearing - is really an exercise in futility sometimes, in my opinion. Instead, learning from the experiences is probably far more beneficial.

I'm not sure this makes much sense, but I think if we as adults and writers overthink swearing, it becomes a forced issue and our characters become cardboard cutouts instead of relatable and believable "people." If you as a writer don't swear, but the character in your head does, then they probably should on paper. But that's my opinion :)

Ava Jae said...

First and foremost, thank you so much for this thoughtful response, Chris. You bring up a great point about teens doing things without fully understanding why they're doing so--and I think you could be right that sometimes we overthink it. I also agree that the language that your characters use shouldn't be forced either way--it should be what feels right for the character.

Robin Red said...

While we're on the subject of what's suitable for YA novels, what about sexual innuendos? Or even drug references? I was reading one of my WIPs that takes place in a fantasy world, and when one of the characters inquired the location of another, one of my villains said she went out to find poppy seeds. At the time I wrote that, I had NO idea poppies were the key ingredient to heroin. But the older, more knowledgable me today wants to keep that there, just to see if anyone catches it and laughs at the implications. Is this wrong? Help me out, Ava.

Ava Jae said...

Sexual innuendos and drug references are 100% ok in YA novels--in fact, they're far from uncommon in the genre. Teenagers think, talk and joke about sex all the time and drug use is not exactly uncommon amongst the teenage population, either. IMO, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being realistic and including drug or sexual references if relevant. You obviously don't need to force it into your work, but if it comes up, I see no reason to censor it.

Carissa Taylor said...

This is such an interesting question. I find incredibly hard to write characters that swear because my family never did and I never do, and very few of my friends growing up ever did. I just don't even know how to make it sound natural!

I don't have anything against it in books really ... I realize that there are people who swear (obviously) ... but I also sometimes wonder if swearing is as common/frequent as it is made out to be in some books. It certainly hasn't been the case in my life!



I guess in the end we just have to write what seems authentic to our experiences and our story..... or maybe I just need to push my boundaries a bit!

Ava Jae said...

I suppose how common swearing is will depend on the environment you grow up in. I know when I was going through high school in particular, swearing was extraordinarily common, like a rite of passage (albeit a rite of passage the teachers didn't appreciate, but nonetheless...). But had I gone to private school, for example, it probably would not have been as prevalent. I can definitely see how it might be more difficult to make it sound natural if you haven't really been exposed to it, however.


But I think you caught onto a key word, there: authenticity. If it doesn't come naturally to your character as you're writing, I wouldn't really worry about it. As you said, not everyone swears. :)

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