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I've recently read two quite "hard core" novels, both by famous authors. One was erotic fiction and one was a thriller which was very violent and gory. At the end I realized something: the F*** word was never used once in either book.

Then, I realized that I don't actually see it a lot in novels, or perhaps the novels I read.

Both the above books had a lot of sh**, damn, freaking, screw, bi**** etc, but not F*** or F***ing and variations.

Is there some unwritten rule about this? Is it seen as very vulgar in novels? Or just unnecessary? Can it put readers off?

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

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Be true to your characters. If the characters swear, do so. If they don't, don't. Be true to the moment, if the scene requires swearing, then swear. Don't confuse your preferences or personality for your characters.

if you swear a lot, or not at all, that shouldn't reflect on how your characters speak.

One of the most common mistakes in even accomplished writers is judging their characters. Write your characters with sincerity, and let your readers judge them. If you are a good writer, they'll land on the conclusion you want them to make.

Important to note, though, that you'll generally only swear in character. Third person exposition will almost never use any form of profanity. Exposition is objective, not subjective.

One other thing: crudity or profanity has little to do with verbiage, it is mostly context. You said it yourself: a hard core novel that didn't use F once.

Consider: "She is so fucking smart not even her professors can keep up with her." vs "I'd pound her brains out if she weren't as ugly as a leprous orangutan."

One is a compliment, the other misogynistic. The swear is nothing more than color.

  • Thanks so much Kmunky and Swinefever. I'm going to take this on board. My characters swear a few times during a couple of heated scenes. To me, it doesn't sound forced at all. It sounds completely normal, but I wondered if perhaps F*** was a big no no in novels or something, just because I don't seem to see it that much. Anyway, your input has been great! I will leave the scene as I originally wrote it. – MoniqueH Feb 21 '16 at 21:28
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    This is an excellent answer, but I would like to add one thing: consider your audience. Certain audiences will be put off by language. If you intend on using a lot of language, make sure that your audience is one that is generally okay with it (aka, don't put swearing in a kid's book or something). – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Feb 24 '16 at 18:50
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At a guess I'd say it's probably a bridge too far for most publishers, but the other thing to remember is that it's pretty much top-of-the-tree as a far as profanity goes, so once you've used it, where do you go? If you want to represent levels/layers of emotion and associated profanities then you'd start small and build up, leaving the big stuff for when it's really needed.

Of course I'm speculating, but it's as a good a reason as any.

  • Thanks for your input. I was really surprised when I read both books as they are both extremely graphic in different ways, and one is very disturbing, but they didn't ever use F***. In my novel, there is a break up between the first person narrator and the spouse. I feel like F*** would be completely normal, as in that is a word that would be used in this situation due to exasperation etc., so I don't feel like I'm forcing it in. I'm just second-guessing myself now as to whether to use it at all. Do you see this word often in novels? I am realizing that I don't see it that much. Thanks. – MoniqueH Feb 21 '16 at 18:37
  • I'll be honest, I don't see it a lot but then I read mostly SF/F and it would be anachronistic in most of those settings. That said, it's not unheard of and, like kmunky says, if it feels right for that character then use it, if it doesn't then use something else. – swinefever Feb 21 '16 at 20:31
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Can it put readers off? Yes, by all means. Are there rules? Yes, don't turn off your intended audience, for obvious reasons.

I know that regional differences and religious views hugely impact what could be considered norms, but you should at very least gauge your language off the rest of the content. On one extreme, if your book could otherwise be admitted into a local church library, why introduce potentially offensive language, and limit your audience? On the other hand, if the content will be such as to attract an increasingly large audience among whom vulgar speech is second-nature, language used will have far less impact on acceptance than content. I personally would rather encounter some mild language prior to questionable scenes so I would better realize the direction of the book (especially when reading alongside, or out loud to, others, e.g. younger siblings, friends, etc.).

You really just need to make the language usage fit in with the book. That said, I would err on the mild side just to be safe.

  • Yes, in my book, the profanity wouldn't stick out (in my mind at least), and there is other more graphic stuff going on. I just still have this doubt about whether to use the word or not. For some reason, it just seems like it could be taken badly or something. Maybe I'm overthinking... – MoniqueH Feb 27 '16 at 6:56
  • @MoniqueH Sorry to be so unhelpful, but I really have no idea on that; I don't read graphic books anyway (sometimes there are graphics like pictures, drawings, and/or other designs :). I tried reading Shakespeare, but it was too graphic for me... I've talked to other people I would have thought to be somewhat conservative who didn't share my view at all. People like I am will just leave your book on the shelf. I tried to make my answer somewhat generalized for demonstration by contrast, but I already had some idea you weren't going for the church-group audience. :^) . – Kai Maxfield Feb 27 '16 at 7:39
  • To me the word would be an offensive and surprising find, but just leaving it out obviously wouldn't get me to read the book either, so my input would only be educated guessing. I personally feel that in this neck of the woods, under-educated people are the primary constituents of the heavy-swearing population, the which, if true, could adversely affect your public image, but I have no idea... – Kai Maxfield Feb 27 '16 at 7:39
  • Thanks. I've only used the F*** word a few times. It's in scenes about the breakdown of the relationship of the couple where they are fighting with each other. My book is also written in the first person and sometimes the narrator is annoyed by something and throws the F*** bomb in there. I've actually removed a few that I had there before, but think I will leave the rest. To me, that kind of language in a really bad end-the-relationship fight is normal and the book is for mature audiences, so I think I will be okay. Thanks for your input! – MoniqueH Feb 27 '16 at 7:45
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There's no rule for not using the F word. It just might be that the author(s) are avoiding it. I recently read a book by Andreas Embirikos (whose style resembles that of Sade's) and he used the F word quite often.

Can it put readers off?

Depends on the book IMO. If I was reading a book like the aforementioned one, I wouldn't be offended. If I was reading a romantic novel, I might be. But generally I wouldn't say that people are offended by these words. They use them and hear them on a daily basis.

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    Some people may not be offended, and might use them on a daily basis, while some have never used them throughout their entire life, cringing - or maybe gasping - whenever contact is made with them. Saying that "they" (theoretically also meaning "we", and potentially, "you" to anyone reading this) use them and hear them on a daily basis is a surprisingly bold assertion. - Just my humble observations. – Kai Maxfield Feb 24 '16 at 11:18
  • @KaiMaxfield it indeed is bold, but you cannot argue that many many mainstream movies use this kind of language. It's not like people in the streets don't use them often – Shevliaskovic Feb 24 '16 at 11:19
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    True, but many, many people (by numbers, not percentage) don't watch these mainstream movies. It just depends on the streets I suppose. But if these words were in the everyday vernacular of so many people, it seems conceivable that they would not be swear words. Anyway, here in Utah there are many who will be offended by such language. – Kai Maxfield Feb 24 '16 at 11:26
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    You got a point there. Not everyone watches these movies. But (at least here in Greece), it's really rare to go somewhere with the bus or the subway, without hearing someone swearing (something that I find extremely bad for the culture) – Shevliaskovic Feb 24 '16 at 11:27
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The limitation is on the publisher or agent but not for legal reasons, for marketing ones.

I always use an agent. They will tell you what to do about this issue in particular (among others). I've seen some ghetto drama where F bombs didn't break the top 5 on insults, for instance.

I personally write the story I see. Finishing a book is an awesome experience. Once you've gotten that far, it's time to consider the tone of your story, and whom you are trying to appeal to. I find it a true head-scratcher that erotica mostly stays away from profanity (at least by the George Carlin standard). Despite that, it does so well commercially.

The few times I've seen bestsellers like Grisham and Clancy cuss in print, it actually stands out in my mind.

However, consider comedians often swear successfully, both on stage and on paper, but you should be sure you're funny (with beta readers). If you are self-publishing, you may give yourself a bad name if it comes across as crude.

My current work, not that I should just talk about myself, has A LOT of profanity. The catch is it is 15th century historical fiction when many of our favorites were coming into use. It remains to be seen whether they will survive the editing process.

  • Thanks, Stu. In your experience, do agents advise getting rid of that particular word, or just profanity in general? – MoniqueH Feb 27 '16 at 6:57
  • I've only written one other book with significant profanity in it, which has gotten a few nibbles but no takers, but the others having just the occasional profane word was requested to remove (many states require parental warnings; it didn't seem worth it). My psychiatric drama isn't the same without cussing and won't be marketed to kids, and my historical fiction needs the comic relief to balance out torture, burnings, etc., so I'll roll the dice with those. – Stu W Feb 27 '16 at 15:51
  • Of course if you self-publish, you get to do what you want. You might consider pseudonyms for anything risque. – Stu W Feb 27 '16 at 16:23

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