The (Way More Than) Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Use in YA Fiction

In looking for a relevant quote to open this post with, I found two that contrast each other nicely:

Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly. – Spencer W. Kimball

Profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you. – Kurt Vonnegut

In other words, Kimball regards profanity as a poor method of self-expression, while Vonnegut seems to accept it as a part of our language and, if I may be so bold as to interpret the late great author’s remark, places the weakness on the listener rather than the speaker.

I follow Vonnegut on this one. Profanity is part of language and his has a purpose. Sometimes a crude, artless purpose, but profanity, especially the big guns — shit, cocksucker, cunt, asshole, fuck and its many, many permutations — has unmatchable power. As a person, I like profanity. I use it often. The only times I rein myself in are when young children are within earshot and when I’m writing young adult fiction, and it kind of galls me in the latter case.

This isn’t to say I want to load the dialogue up with shits and fucks, but I’d like to have the freedom to drop an F-bomb if I think it appropriate. However, the conventional logic with YA is that it’s generally a PG-level story for language and sexual content; hard profanity would get edited out, so why bother putting it in?

The real burn for me is the fact that I could stray into PG-13 or even R territory for violent content and mature themes and it would rattle fewer cages than a single “fuck” in the dialog. I can’t recall “The Hunger Games” having so much as a damn or hell, but a young girl getting gut-stabbed by a spear? No problemo.

In past discussions about writing dialog for younger characters, it’s been argued to me profanity is unrealistic because teens don’t use such language. I can only assume these people have never met a teenager, because they can be impressively created when they work blue. Swearing is as much a part of language for teens as for adults, maybe even more so because it still has that whiff of the forbidden, which is like catnip to teenagers. It should be acceptable dialog in YA.

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