Profanity in Young Adult Novels

I am having a dilemma with the book I am currently writing. The main character is 15 years old. The target audience for the book would be 14-18 year olds. When I was 15, I said a bad word from time to time, sometimes more often. All the other people I was in high school with did too. Saying bad words was in a way important for many, like a little rebellion. Maybe they are not drinking, shoplifting and having sex, but they will say dammit if they want to.

So I can say with certainty that teenagers curse.

But in YA novels it seems like portraying the teenagers accurately is a big no-no.  In the world of YA, people don’t say bad words.  They always don’t do anything more than kiss.  But I guess that is another subject all together.

Yesterday I was writing and my main character thought “My jaw is a little strong, my forehead is a little high, and maybe my nose is a bit too small. I have some acne, but who doesn’t?  I don’t know.  I really don’t know, I just look like a person.  A normal fucking person.”

I had to clutch my pearls.  I went and changed it to “freaking.”  Then I changed it right back.  No, she would not think “freaking” here.  She is upset, she is hurt, she is confused.  This is the right time to say a strong word.  To change it would change the character; it would give her more respect for authority than she has; it would make her more timid than she is.  She is not a shrinking violet or a damsel in distress.   For me, fiction is most believable when the characters act like real people.  Real teenagers say “fuck.’ True fact.

As a self-publishing author I can, of course, do whatever I want.  There is no editor to tell me to tone down her language.  So this choice is up to me.  But what if writing a teenager as a real person makes people not want to read my book?  Am I writing to the audience or to the story?  To the genre or for my own enjoyment?    Writing is my job, so selling the books is a concern, but if I start censoring my character this early on, who is she going to be by the end of the story?   I want a real, believable girl, not a cardboard cut out of one.

2 thoughts on “Profanity in Young Adult Novels

  1. I think making your character “real” is a good thing–the reader can relate to the character. You’re writing YA–not middle grade, so having a “dammit” here and there with a surprising “fuck” is nothing. A lot of adults read YA too. 🙂


  2. I love the pearl clutching photo!

    I’ll tell you my experience as a cursing teen and as a writer. When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of short stories. I was working on one that was simply a character exercise where the characters were attempts to literally copy me and my friends on the page. There was no attempt to fictionalize, and most of the dialog was me attempting to convey actual conversations the way they happened. There was a LOT of cursing. My mother read the story, and while she’s not really one to pearl clutch, she said the dialog was unrealistic. She said, “People just don’t talk like that.” It was a strange thing to hear since so much of the dialog was real-life-verbatim.

    I don’t know what the moral of that story is. Maybe that adults (parents) have no idea what’s coming out of the mouths of their children when the parents aren’t around. You said that the cursing is a little rebellion. I guess I always knew not to curse so much around adults, but it wasn’t rebellious. It was simply the way I talked. I still do curse a LOT. It’s just a preferred vocabulary set, like a regional dialect. It doesn’t “mean” much to me.

    My favorite YA is Christopher Pike. There’s definitely come cursing as well as some sex (casual, shitty sex even, which seems even rarer in teen fiction). I’m not sure what the norm is, but I’m sure you could get away with some.

    As far as writing right now, especially since it’s NaNo, I bet it’d be best to just toss the words down as they come. Include every fuck that comes to mind and sketch out this character as authentically as you can. Then there’s no risk of losing sight of the character in your attempts to tone her down. You can always do a little tailoring on edit later, and that poses less risk to the heart of the character.


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