Sunday, 11 June 2017

#RebelliousWriting: *scrubs YA MC's mouth out with soap*

Gray over at Writing is Life has started a thing, guys. And if you haven't heard about it yet, I'm proud to present to you: The #RebelliousWriting movement

YA is full of rubbish we really don't want to read about.

Media presents immoral behaviour to teens as normal; teens think it must be normal; media says "see? that's realistic! it's how they are! they need more!!". It's a vicious cycle.  

As YA readers, we need better. As teen writers, we can do better. Let's push back.


Today I'm writing about swearing in novels - why it's unnecessary, or if not, how to get around it. (Side note: does anyone know how YA compares to adult fiction for rates/intensity of swearing?? because YA is. so. bad.)



To start with, a dictionary definition:

Swear (v): use obscene or blasphemous language; use a profane or indecent word in anger etc.

I've grown up surrounded by people who don't swear, but as far as I can tell, these are the reasons for swearing (feel free to correct me):
1. To blaspheme God, address some obscenity to Him, or similar.
2. To abuse someone by calling them obscene words.
3. To shock listeners by the vulgarity.
4. To be 'cool'.
5. As an intensifier.
6. Because they simply don't realise they're saying it anymore [and mean next-to-nothing by it].

Now let's look at novels - specifically the characters, the readers, and the author.


Good guys first. Are any of those six actual good reasons for your good-guy characters to swear? (In my opinion, no.)

Why does your (supposedly good!) character need to say that word?

A reason we're often given is that they're in great pain/danger/stress, and it's realistic for them to swear.



I don't agree.


Let me tell you about my dad. He's a hardworking and loving Christian. At various times, he has: cut the tip off a finger (more than once), been kicked by a bad-tempered cow, blasted air into a cut with a compressor (his whole arm swelled up and it felt/sounded like bubble wrap when we poked it), burnt himself in various ways, watched a nurse dig around in his wrist with tweezers for a shard of metal ("Here it i- nope, that's a tendon"), and set his jeans on fire while welding (no joke).

At no time have I ever heard him swear.

So when people say people tell me their characters need to swear to be realistic? I just wonder why they can't write good characters. Sure, people struggle. That's how we are, and your characters should struggle too (with different things, depending on their strengths and weaknesses). But have them trying to do the right thing, please?? Maybe have them biting their lip to keep bad words coming out?

If a character swears because he's broken his leg, isn't he actually abusing God for letting that happen?? Or else he's simply using that word as an intensifier, which seems to me unnecessarily profane, and quite dangerous morally.

Children and teens will (sadly) encounter bad language. They may be tempted to copy it. This is realistic to portray in fiction, especially if your character is a young person whose 'friends' are leading her astray into rebellion. As long as you show this is wrong, I think it could be appropriate to do something like this:
Filled with heat, Jess spat out a phrase she'd heard Mack use - often, and to great effect.
Her mother's face cracked.
"No- I didn't mean-" Jess sucked in a breath, the cold shame and horror which flowed off her mother filling her gut.
This isn't swearing "to make the character realistic"; this is part of a larger theme, rebellion against parents. (Which is also ungodly and we see far too much of it, okay? Dunno about you, but I couldn't bear to break my loving parents hearts. We can be teenagers without being rebellious; our characters can too. Possible future #RebelliousWriting post.) You'll also notice I did not actually swear in my example; I'll talk about that after going over your other characters:


Bad guys. Yes. Realistically, the villains - or the bad kids at school - will swear. We don't swear because we're Christians, children of God, but obviously people without those beliefs won't be inhibited by the moral code that comes with them.

I understand if you feel your bad guys would swear. But.

Consider your readers.  Are they 'bad guys'? Possibly. Probably not. Probably they're just struggling with the world's lies, like all of us. Help them out here.  Don't reinforce the world's lies of what's acceptable and normal! Your readers don't need you to feed them bad language.

Where your villains insist it's necessary/in character for them to swear, try saying exactly that: "[X] swore." That's simple, helps us to know that's a bad guy, and doesn't extend the wrong vocabulary. Plus, it's a nice short sentence that will add variation to your sentence structure! ;)

You can use other phrases. "Said a bad word". "Said something my mother'd take a bar of soap to my mouth for". "Abused his gods" (for fantasy). "Cursed him and his family line and the day he was born". Anything like that.
"Mr Villain swore hard enough to strip paint, and Charrie flinched."
Also, consider your own soul. Your writing affects you as much as it affects any reader -- maybe more, because you study it, labour over it, spend your life on it. (Audrey Caylin wrote a post which discussed that a bit: {STORIES ARE POWERFUL}.) If you put bad language in your novel, you're hurting yourself as well as your readers.


And if an author is relying on swear words to make their characters/story "interesting"? That's completely lazy writing.

Just letting you know: as a reader, I have no problem with 'regular' characters not swearing, and writers leaving the villains' swear words out. Say "He swore", and I won't complain it's unrealistic, and I will be able to tell that's a bad guy, and that will be one tick for you on my checklist for whether I'll recommend your book!


Did this post make sense? What do you think about swearing and all that stuff in YA? Readers + writers - I'd love to hear your opinion! And are you getting involved with the #RebelliousWriting movement? (hint: you should!)

29 comments:

  1. Thank you so much! I couldn't agree more with your points!!

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    1. You're welcome! Thanks for starting the #RebelliousWriting movement - I hope it gains momentum! (it seems to be doing pretty well so far...)

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  2. Agreement. So much agreement. I have some of my characters swear in the heat of anger (the not so polished ones) but I just say "He swore". Not the actual words, and I'm not usually thinking of any word in particular. And in fantasy books- we can invent our own exclamations that mean nothing to us but are shocking in their society. The Goldstone Wood books and the Lunar Chronicles both do that to great effect.

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    1. And BTW your poor dad! O_O

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    2. That's exactly what I was suggesting! :) It's an interesting aspect of worldbuilding, too - what things/morals/deities do people hold in high regard, and what is the response when people use those to swear? (I'm trying to get my hands on both those series, Faith - I've seen them recommended so often all around the blogosphere!)

      Dad's tougher than me, that's for sure!

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  3. Great post! You have super good points and explained them very well. (It sounds like your dad has had his fair share of injuries; I hope he's okay!) :D Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. Aw, that's good, Melissa! (I wasn't sure how well I'd done xD) Yep, Dad's okay :) Thanks for /reading/ my thoughts!

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  4. Yes! So much truth!! Thank you!!

    ~Sarah R.

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    1. Thank YOU for reading, Sarah! (also for following xD)

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  5. YESSS. I am screaming my agreement from the rooftops over here! We don't need stuff like that in novels or even movies for that matter. It doesn't add anything to the story but making the reader flinch because it's so nasty. You explained all of this SO well. Great job <3

    (and thanks for mentioning my post :)

    audrey caylin

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    1. *screams with you* *invites everyone to a screaming party* *on the rooftops* If it doesn't add to the story, WHY IS IT IN THERE? (Actually, isn't that bad writing? Having stuff that doesn't add to the story??)

      Thanks! <3

      I finished writing this post and then remembered that post of yours, Audrey, and realised I hadn't mentioned that writing rubbish into a story would affect the author? So thank you for writing it! :)

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  6. Can I just say that this post is YESSSS! So often I pick up a YA book and I have to throw it into the abyss because HOLY KITTENS THE THINGS THEY PRESENT AS OKAY!!

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    1. I'd like to join you, throwing books into the abyss, but then my library's YA shelves would be 85.652% empty and I probably wouldn't be allowed back... still, maybe I should just go for it?? ;P Thanks for reading, Daisy!

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  7. a) I'M SO SORRY THAT I HAVEN'T BEEN COMMENTING. I somehow misplaced your blog and lost it?? *hides in shame*

    b) THIS BLOG POST IS SO MUCH YES AND JUST LET ME SCREAM OVER HERE FOR A FEW CENTURIES. *sticks this post up as a poster on the Eiffel tower or somewhere impressive where everyone should read it*

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    1. a) THAT'S OKAY I DO THAT TOO (or I just can't keep up with all the amazing people's posts) *pats you on the back*

      b) *WAITS PATIENTLY FOR YOU TO FINISH SCREAMING* THANK YOU JANE

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  8. Your dad needs to meet mine...they can compare burns and scrapes and bruises together! But again, I've never heard my dad use any "language" when in these situations. He just yelps and hops around and goes "eeessssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!" :)

    I love making my own phrases for characters to use, either good or bad. It helps with worldbuilding, and just makes things interesting. But I hate when there's language in writing. Who is going to complain "there weren't any swear words!" But there will be people who say "it's great, clean, and I would recommend it!"

    Another thing I would mention, is the use of the Lord's Name. People can say a book has no "bad" words in it, but there are "OMG's" which, in my opinion, are worse. Other words just mean nasty things, but using our Lord's name in a flippant, casual way...that bothers me. Like, we have an entire commandment about taking His name in vain... #rantover

    But this is something that should be spread around! You can still get points and plots and character building across without going into details or using foul language!

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    1. Actually, one might contend that you would get your point across even better because your writing isn't weighed down with poor, meaningless language.

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    2. Exactly. Not only can you write without language, you can write /better/ without it.

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    3. Julian (and Sarah), I completely agree with everything you've said! (I actually had a longer comment, but my computer ate it. *scowls at recalcitrant technology*) Two points I did want to make:

      I didn't specify, but I include taking the Lord's name in vain as swearing. Shamefully, it's so common nowadays that people often don't even notice, but it's wrong - especially when it's combined with a crude word (makes me feel all hot and mad inside). You're completely right: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" is a commandment, the same as "You shall not murder"! That's pretty serious!

      And my other point - I believe that if an author relies on swearing to build character/tension/plot/'relatability', that simply shows that he/she is a weak writer!

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  9. Hi Jem, I finally git over to your blog! And yes, great post. And you know my opinion about "this being realistic"? To quote Emily Mundell from one of her posts, "One is showing you something wrong, the other is showing you something wrong and trying to tell you it's right." There's a difference showing something normal and wrong as realistic and right, and with showing something normal and wrong as realistic and bad/damaging. It's like saying, "everyone does it; you should too," vs. "everyone does it; try and be the change." It's the same with other issues. Obviously some people are going to be of that opinion that it's not wrong and it's okay, but we are not them. We should try and be the change. A good influence. Also swearing is just one part of taking the Lord's name in vain. If you claim to be his, if you are supposed to honor and bring glory to his name - and that's in everything you do. In the Bible you'll find God telling his people that they are taking his name in vain doing other things: such as in not giving him the best of their flock - sacrificing sick animals. That's interesting right?

    Okay I have talked too much I'm sorry. Anyway, great blog you havve here. I'll be stalking in the future.

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    1. Yes!! "Everyone does it; try to be the change." That's what I was trying to say!

      That is an interesting thought, Lisa - I suppose that whenever we behave in a non-Christian way, we're kind of taking His name in vain? (and for the Jews, that was things like bad sacrifices?)

      Glad to hear it. ;) But talk as much as you want!

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  10. You started this post spectacularly, Jem! You've just gave me and so many other teen writers out there a reason to continue writing honestly and at times brutally :)

    - andrea at a surge of thunder

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    1. Oh dear... "started this post spectacularly" makes it sound like I finished weak?? (I hope not...) ;) But I'm so pleased if this post in any way helped teen writers to be honest with themselves and their writing! Thank you, Andrea :D

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  11. Yes, so true. WHY HAVE SWEARING IN YOUR OTHERWISE PERFECTLY FINE BOOK, FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON?!!!!!

    Totally agree Jem, swearing is unnecessary, and degrading of your book.

    Also, great blog, I'll be following.

    -Lei

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    1. Sometimes I feel like going through the library's YA section with a permanent marker ;)

      Thanks, Lei! :D

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  12. Me again...

    Your dad sounds like a great guy.

    -Lei

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    1. He is. I'm truly blessed (and don't usually appreciate him enough). :)

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  13. I am DEFINITELY joining this movement!!! I could write several blog posts about this but briefly - those sorts of words are UGLY and I want my books to SOUND and LOOK BEAUTIFUL. I would not deface them that way.

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    1. Awesome, Kate! I believe Gray and some others are organising a blog specifically for #RebelliousWriting, which might be something to look out for. :)

      YES those kinds of words are ugly (and hurtful and crude) and the world needs more beauty and light. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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Comment away! I read all comments - no matter how old the post may be! - and I'll try to reply. Just keep your words appropriate so I won't have to delete your comment (I'd hate to have to do that).