It has come to my attention lately that I curse too much. First my husband said to me, “Why do you curse so much?” Then a reader mentioned that my series character had become more foul mouthed in the second book. So I had to think about it. And I don’t have a good answer. Like almost everything in life, cursing is a habit. And so, like all the other bad habits in my life, I’m trying do without. Fortunately, it’s not an all or nothing proposition like smoking. I like to think that I can cut back on the cursing—reserve it for special occasions and not slip all the way into my current pattern. I’m not giving it up entirely, and I’m not looking for sainthood.

But what about my characters? Do they curse too much because I do? How much should characters curse? Of course that depends on the character. But now I’m reading back through the story and looking at every curse word and asking, “Is that necessary? Will another word choice be as effective?” I’m not the pandering type, but I also don’t want to alienate readers with unnecessary offensive language.

Of course, if my character discovers a bomb in his briefcase set to go off in 30 seconds, he’s still likely to say “Holy shit,” but maybe not “Oh f**k.” We’ll see. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Do your characters curse? Do you ever tone it down with sensitive readers in mind? Should we?

  1. I don’t like cursing myself, but I expect my characters to stay in character. Mind you, I probably wouldn’t want to write about characters who swear as much as some do.

  2. Not long before my first book came out, I got an email scolding me for all the “swears” in it. At that point, aside from a few ARCs, the only thing anyone could have read was a few sample chapters online which, while they featured a few spikes on the fuckograph, as one might say, we’re particularly lurid.

    But, oh my, was a bad person for disgracing the language with all those “swears.” What if my children saw the book? (My daughter liked it, but my son has to wait till he’s older.) Etc. Etc.

    You certainly don’t want your characters to swear just because you do. But if it’s in character, then don’t hold back just because there are some tender eyes out there. In my case, I’d chosen the “swears” very carefully. They served as cues for the mental and emotional state of the characters. The change in word choice would change very subtly, I believe, based on what was happening.

    If someone is sensitive the words just because of the words themselves, they won’t catch that subtlety, however. As writers, we have to acknowledge that our audience isn’t everyone. We write the story we have to tell, using the tools available. And some of those tools are swears.

    People who are sensitive to swear words are not in my audience. I’ve even recommended certain people not buy my book after chatting with them. That’s fine. The characters in my stories will use the language appropriate to them, and I would be doing the story and my readers and disservice if I toned it down just because those words are upsetting to some people.

  3. My police reporter protag Annie Seymour cusses like a truck driver…or a reporter. I’ve gotten my share of criticism and emails about this, but I couldn’t change her voice and her choice of words if I wanted to. It’s not gratuitous.

    That said, the tattoo shop owner protag in my new book does not curse at all. This was a conscious decision on my part, because honestly? I’m tired of being scolded. Some will say I’ve sold out. I pacify myself by saying I’ll appeal to a lot more readers now.

  4. Ah, yes. My characters do curse and with vigor. Rona Shively is a private detective and she’s got a mouth like a sailor. I try to temper it with a great sense of humor and a good heart, though. Indeed, I find that I actually cuss less now than I used to. Maybe doing so vicariously, through Rona, has helped me clean up my own potty mouth. So, it’s good for something.
    Great topic!

  5. Of course my ShapeShifter boys curse, Trevor in particular (then again, he refers to himself as Trevor F–ing Wolff). But when I write Deadly Metal Hatchet, they don’t. And of course, since Chelle is a journalist, she can’t.

    It can be a bit of a mind fugue at times, keeping all these characters straight. But it’s fun.

    There will be more cursing in the future, I’m sure. It’s the nature of the beast.

  6. It depends on a) your target audience and b) your characters. If the character is someone you wish to portray as less than desirable, swearing is a useful tool. It definitely adds a touch of authenticity.

  7. I echo pretty much what everyone else has said about cursing. If it fits the character it’s fine. It’s all about the character. A bad choice of words is like a bad choice of clothing, you wouldn’t put a Paris Hilton type character in Walmart sneakers. I think you have to stay real for the reader.

  8. This is a very interesting post. One of my beta readers read my manuscript years ago and gave me lots of praise–and mentioned he thought the character cursed too much. He said he thought it unnecessary…I hadn’t even noticed it!

    The second time I heard that (different manuscript) I really started to think about how much was in my writing and whether it was necessary. Mostly…it just wasn’t.

  9. I just had an editor berate me because I had a prostitute swearing. Too stereotypical, he said. He didn’t like it. Considering the protagonist’s lifestyle and environment, her words were quite mild and I thought it out of character to be too squeaky clean. Just goes to show you, everything is a matter of opinion. But then the editor decided he didn’t like the character–period–so we’ve come to a parting of the ways.

  10. Someone once told me that cursing only draws attention to your lack of education. Clearly, the more you educate yourself, the more word choices you have. As for character authenticity, I agree that certain types of character would utilize certain words but the question is, I think, do you need it? Maybe its the choice of character, more than the characters choice. I’m a big believer that there has to be something for everyone, mabye it just comes down to who you are writing for and what you want to write. Me, personally, I tend to stay away from hardcore cursing, a few mild epithets never hurt but anythign more cheapens the show.

  11. It depends on the character. I tend to notice when character curse too much (like Joe Pesci in Good Fellows or Casino – I started counting the f*(k bombs and it felt like an auditory assault), but if it fits, it doesn’t bother me.

  12. I don’t mind creative swearing, because some situations call for it. But, overuse of the F-word is just crass. I find it to be a violent word that’s derogatory to women, and how women can even consider using it is beyond me. But, I admit, I’m particularly sensitive to it. I don’t like the word “cunt” either. The characters who spew that kind of language automatically are less, well, likeable to me. If there’s too much foul language in the book, it pulls me out of the story, and that, of course, is the kiss of death for any future reading.


  13. I curse like a sailor, though I was a soldier a very long time ago. The biggest problem for me is that I (accidentally) live in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and these words fly out of my mouth of their own accord, offending neighbors and passers-by. I suspect that my children have fewer friends because of it. Yes, it’s a habit, but I must ask: Is it worth stopping? They are just words.
    SCT from NOLA

  14. Each time a character curses, I’m aware of it as I type. And I do stop and wonder if I could have him/her use some other words. Sometimes I change it; sometimes I don’t.

    I think you have to be true to the character.

  15. I read “On Writing” by Stephen King. He is aware that he is often criticized as being “potty mouthed” a lot in his books. And he even cusses in his first person narrative in that book. I think curse words should not be used unless they are “in character.” And in those cases, where the character would in “real life” say f**k or s**t and not “ouch” or “darn” then I agree with King – you have to write HONESTLY. Otherwise your book sounds trite and not connected with the world we live in.

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