Authors have debated the use of profanity or vulgarisms in their books for years, often citing so-called experts that advocate for or against its use. This past weekend, I encountered an author that claimed her books would not sell (according to her publisher) if she didn’t liberally use profanity “because people talk like that”.
The situation is a lot more complicated.
- Consider Your Target Audience. The first step in determining whether to use profanity or vulgarisms is to identify your ideal reader. Your language will be different if you are writing for war-seasoned fighters versus a strict grandmother.
- Consider Your Story. Likewise, you need to consider your story; are you writing a hard-boiled suspense, a cozy, a romance or s&m? The rules vary according to genre and sub-genre. But there are always exceptions; many of the most frightening or disturbing stories do not contain profanity at all.
- Drop “Because Everyone Talks That Way”. No, they don’t. Perhaps the circle you inhabit does, but it by no means defines all circles. If this is your reason for adding profanity, it isn’t good enough.
- Ask Yourself Why It’s Important. Often authors will use profanity because they are not inspired to write something wittier. Are you depending on a catch-all word when you can’t think of another? Or is that word truly the one and only word that works?
- Consider Your Reputation. Authors build their reputations book by book. No one ever tossed a book because it did not contain profanity. Plenty have tossed them because they did. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t write it, but you should not be surprised if some take exception. Remember also that your book is likely to survive far longer than you, and your name will always be associated with what you’ve written.
- Consider the Book’s Reach and Culture. In this day and age, books can be sold instantly around the world, including into countries where the cultures and norms are very different. Words that are considered reasonable in one country or culture may be grounds for stoning or imprisonment in another. Again, be prepared for any controversy if you choose to pepper your books with vulgarisms.
- Consider How Your Language Affects Your Career. Readers become accustomed to authors and they learn to expect a certain style. If you choose to pepper your story with profanity or vulgarism, you may be expected to continue that practice in order to maintain your target market. Likewise, if your audience does not care for it, you can lose them forever simply by writing one book that contains words they dislike.
If you are an author, do you use profanity or vulgarisms in your work? Why or why not? And if you are a reader, how does it affect how you feel about the storyline and the author?