I try not to swear. In public my self censor is carefully turned on, and I’m fairly good about not dropping any wayward f-bombs. In private I catch myself cursing sometimes, if I give myself a spectacular papercut, or end up dropping my book in the bath, or something catastrophic like that.
But what about in fiction? Should we censor ourselves while we’re writing books for teens?
I write stories on wattpad, and most of them are read by teens. Occasionally I’ll have someone say something like “it’s such a shame you have vulgar words in here. I can’t let my child read this”. For the record, there are no f-bombs in my wattpad stories. The vulgar words they’re talking about are actually pretty tame, and they’re used sparingly. My answer to these people is always the same: I’m sorry you feel that way, but as a writer, I strive to be as realistic as possible in regards to the situation and characters.
When I write about blood-thirsty steampunk pirates, I don’t make them say “oh fudgesicles!” when something goes wrong. That’s ridiculous. It’s going to pull the reader right out of the story and make them shake their head in disgust. When I write about a tough girl who has lived on the street all her life, I’m not going to make her turn into Shirley Temple all of a sudden and shout ‘Oh fooey!” when the bad guys are chasing her.
On a different note, lets talk about teens for a second here. I knew all the “bad” words by the time I was in grade one. Scott Smith leaned over and whispered the f-word in my ear during math class, and it went around the classroom like a game of telephone. Later, in my late teens, while listening to two of my guy friends talk, I counted up all the f-bombs in the conversation and lost interest when I hit one hundred.
Here’s a shocker: Teens swear.
Not all teens. Some of them don’t. Some of them don’t like to hear it either, and will politely ask you to check yourself. But that’s usual. The fact is that real teens swear, they talk about sex. They drink. I know parents don’t like to hear this, god knows, my mother hated it when I slipped up and swore in front of her, she gave me a verbal lashing that rang in my ears for days afterwords. But the fact is, writers are aiming for realistic characters, realistic teens of all kinds. So maybe my protagonist doesn’t swear, but her love interest, an angry kid from a bad home sure does. Maybe it creates conflict between the two of them. That’s real life.
And we strive so hard to stay true to real life, to create real characters that teens can relate to, that substituting ridiculous made up words or making them not say anything at all, is doing ourselves a disservice. And it’s insulting to teens. Because teens know a fake when they see it, you’re not fooling anyone. They know when you’re sugarcoating or skirting around an issue. They have no patience for something that coddles them, for something that compromises and substitutes ridiculous words or scenarios when something else would have happened in real life.
As a writer, your art should imitate life if you want to create relatable, realistic characters. And that includes the not so pleasant stuff. It includes talk about sex, it includes bad decisions and dirty talk and drinking. It includes bullying and sometimes sexual assault or rape. It includes swearing. Should you handle it carefully and seriously? Yes. Should you exclude it altogether. I say no.
What do you think? Should YA have swearing in it for the sake of realism? Should it take on serious, sometimes forbidden topics?
Writers and readers, don’t forget to tune in this Sunday for the Word Nerds live chat on the “Two V’s”. We’ll be discussing vulgarity and violence in YA, and if it should be included, how much is too much, ect.
If you’re not sure who the Word Nerds are, we’re a vlogging group of six YA writers. We’ll be chatting live each Sunday about a new writing topic here:
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