Swearing – Is it Ever Necessary in Fiction?


I often hear people say that they hate fiction with the f-word. People will say things like `it’s nothing but the F word. It’s all swearing. There’s too many profanities,’ yet is swearing a valid expression within fiction and when does it become too much?

swearing in cartoon

Image via Wikipedia

Personally, I don’t mind a bit of swearing. I don’t think that it’s always appropriate but sometimes it is more realistic. In fact I find that attempts to cover swearing can stand out even more than if they’d used a profanity, because the words I would expect a character to say are absent. Something about the replacement of the F-word just jars me.

Yet there are times when it goes too far the other way. I’ve read some books where the use of swear words seemed to be constant and gratuitous, every character in a constant tirade of  profanities which only distracted from the story.

So how do you decide when to use it in your fiction and how? Here’s a few ideas:

Use it when:

  • It seems the most appropriate thing for the character to say.
  • It fits the character and situation without defining them (unless you deliberately want to define then)
  • It feels right for the scene.
  • It doesn’t detract anything from the scene.
  • It adds realism.

Avoid Using it When:

  • It doesn’t seem appropriate and you don’t feel that it fits into the story and/or characters.
  • It would be inappropriate to your audience. I.e. In children’s books.
  • It becomes the story – This is where it is so frequent that it actually becomes a hindrance. Instead of adding more realism this actually lessens the effect of the swearing because the reader often either switches off from it because it’s repetitive or is offended by it.

The most important thing to remember that it is all about choice. You can choose whether you feel swearing is a necessary part of your story or remove it entirely. Some people will always find it offensive but there’s nothing to say that it doesn’t have its place. After all which would be a more realistic way to react if your character had just lost everything he/she owned because of someone else’s mistake? Would they be mad? Upset? Of course they would. Whether they would swear or not depends on that type of character but I think it’s safe to say that many people in this situation would be shouting profanities.

My advice is to use it sparingly, even if you do choose to use it. While there is a place for it, you may not want it to dominate your work, which is usually what will happen if it’s used too much.

What’s your take on swearing? Do you use it in your novels or flash fiction?

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11 thoughts on “Swearing – Is it Ever Necessary in Fiction?

  1. I actually struggled with this a bit when writing my novel. There’s a scene where the main character totally flies off the handle and loses control of his emotions. In my head, I heard him say the F-word, but I hesitated putting it in the manuscript because I’m not of fan of the word itself. However, after revising and editing I realized I was doing a disservice to the character and his plight. Without it, the scene didn’t have as much power, nor did it emphasize his loss of control. In the final draft, I put the F-word in and my Beta readers all agree it’s the right word.

    Just like in life, there are appropriate times to use profanity and inappropriate times. Writers have the same responsibility when creating fiction.

    Great post! 🙂

    • I’ve struggled a few times with the decision to keep or remove swearing from my writing and sometimes I felt that removing it really would do a disservice to the character. I especially liked your point that writers have the same responsibility as in real life to judge when it’s appropriate and not appropriate. Very true.

  2. If I felt that the character would swear then I would use it. Your character has to be believable, so, if you think he/she would say the F-word in the situation then you should use the F-word. I also agree that writers shouldn’t overuse swearing. Using words like that a few time can give emphasis to the character and tell readers how he/she feels, but too many times takes away the meaning.

  3. If it’s fitting for the character to swear, then have them swear. If it isn’t fitting for that moment in the book, but the character has a foul mouth, have them swear and then have another character call them on it.

    You don’t have to have it in a book, and in some cases it can detract from the overall effect of the book. Paying attention to the age level of your audience is also important. But overall, if it’s an adult book or even a more mature YA book, and it fits the character and it fits the scene, by all means use the words.

  4. Pingback: Some thoughts on (my) swearing… « Loftier Musings

  5. Jen used to work in a prison; at that time practically every sentence out of her mouth included some sort of curse word. When she left that job she became more aware of what she was saying and changed her voice. That having been said, some writing includes the word because that is what is in the head of the writer. It’s not for me to say if it’s right or wrong. But I can choose to not read the work if it bothers me.

  6. A clever writer who wants to avoid bad language can arrange it at the same time leave little doubt in the mind of the reader what is being said.
    One writer told me, “I merely say they cursed.”
    Do we see the need to discribe every detail? Can we leave or trust a little to the reader – where ever it takes him. I’ve yet to read a book and say, “There’s not enough bad words in it.”
    I’m a bit prudish, but when I see a flury of offensive words I will choose to stop reading.

    • I agree with you. Sometimes it’s so overdone in writing when it isn’t necessary. Having said that I don’t mind the odd curse word in there as long as it doesn’t take over. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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