Profanity In YA Novels – Guest Post

Today, fantasy author JD Savage will be providing his unique take on things as part of the first ever Literary Plus Blog Tour!

Literary+ is a writer based project brought together and lead by Shen Hart. It brings together passionate, quality self-published writers to help each other promote their work, bringing more readers to every member. It was sparked by the simple fact that there are many top quality self-published authors being over-looked because they do not have the time and resources to efficiently and effectively market and promote themselves. With ambition and passion, Literary+ will take its members to the heights they deserve through a tight-knit community of like-minded writers.

What do Your Readers Expect?

A new study, a new round of hand wringing. After Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne released her study of popular best sellers, and found that many of them contained profanity, the writer’s internet world was all abuzz over the use and effect of profanity in YA novels.

To be sure, some books and series, like Harry Potter and Twilight, to name a few, were light on the cursing. Some others had more. Lots more. Talk of a rating system akin to movies and video games has sprung up, (again), so parents can be informed about what their children read.

The underlying sense, of course, is that profanity is a bad thing. Given the source of the study, I would go so far as to say that the use of profanity is considered immoral, (this is my take on it. Not specifically that of the good professor). There is, however, quite a bit of postulation about how kids will emulate the characters that swear, because they are depicted as “those with higher social status, better looks and more money”.

Kids swear. As with most things considered “adult”, many teens want to try them on for size, to varying degrees. There is shock value, how-much-can-I-get-away-with value and a sense of being grown up that comes with saltier talk. But, there are a couple of things that this study, and others like it, keep forgetting to mention.

First, teens are people. Every teen does not like the same things. Some will dig into a Harry Potter because it entertains them and they are okay with the fact that Harry doesn’t curse at every opportunity. If there was ever a character that had the right to drop an F-bomb, it was surely poor Harry. Others may like Gossip Girl, with its flippant use of cursing as a way of relating to the world they create for themselves. Still more may be okay with all of that, not blinking at the use, or lack of, words they hear on the school bus or at home, every day.

Another thing that gets mentioned is that cursing and profanity lead to aggressive behavior in teens. Again, it’s implied that this is a bad thing. But, what’s the opposite? Docile, compliant children who grow into docile, compliant consumers? That may be good for sales, but is that really what’s good for us as a whole? This kind of talk always reminds me of the record labeling hearings held at the behest of Tipper Gore during the 1980s. Frank Zappa’s quote, while specific to that issue, seems timeless in its implications. “There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something we’d all love one another.”

The writer has choices to make here. You can write with an eye on the current trends, hoping to score the next profanity-laced bestseller, religious university studies be damned. Or, you can go the other way, and meticulously weed out those words and phrases that creep into your character’s speech that some might find objectionable. Who knows…this may lead to the next honorable hero story that wins the hearts and minds of the world. A nun who swears like a sailor? Funny… at first, but it will surely begin to sound forced after a few instances. A four year old repeating a word heard at home? Even funnier, because it happens ALL THE TIME. A crackhead who speaks like a B-list Shakespearean actor? Maybe, but that’s a tough trait to pull off with any measure of realism.

It’s up to you, as a writer, to make your characters real to the reader and honest to the story you want to tell.

The audience is there for all types of stories. In the end, the use of profanity, or lack thereof, doesn’t make or break a story. A good story told well is a good story. Period. If you think it works for the story and will appeal to the reader you want, make your choices and stick with them. Make your next book better than your last, and it won’t matter if your characters use “dirty words” or not. Then you can flip the critics the bird and hold your head high.