I am writing a first person narrative with a character that is very similar to myself. As such I feel like the narrator should speak and think in language that I, personally, would use. Unfortunately, I feel like it may detract from the message I am trying to convey to the reader if I write such things verbatim. For example, a conversation similar to that which I had with a friend once:

Me: I have realized that I am a terrible person.
Friend: what? I don't think so.
Me: Well, I mean, not in the way that I would rape a kitten or anything, but I could see throwing shit at the old guy in front of me that won't move aside or walk faster.

I have used the "rape a kitten" or something similar to it in my regular speech as well as my thoughts and my writing to describe something unusually bad. My question is: Should such things be avoided in my writing? (I have gotten better in my speech, so that is not an issue.)

Edit: I am perfectly fine with "Yes, freedom of speech" or "no, it's morally corrupt" answers, but there needs to be a reason, e.g. writing style or ruining suspension of disbelief.

Edit 2: I am not attempting to legitimize or trivialize or defend anything (maybe my example comes off that way, and if so I apologize but if I change it I feel like I would chameleon the question). I will definitely bear in mind the context.

  • It's supposed to be would.
    – Jake
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 18:36
  • Are you concerned with commercial consequences (marketability, scandals, publicity etc...)? The answer would greatly depend on that.
    – DVK
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 14:40
  • @DVK not particularly. Especially since it won't come off quite as harsh in the actual novel. The particular context for this situation is won't be as jarring.
    – Jake
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 15:10
  • There must be wit and wisdom out there on the perils of writing for an imagined audience rather than for oneself.
    – Strawberry
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 15:17
  • The question can be broken down into three components: (1) Are you, personally, offensively hyperbolic? (2) Are you trying to project the real you? (3) If people don't read your book because it is offensively hyperbolic, will you take great offense?
    – user23046
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 15:53

5 Answers 5


This questions is unanswerable except in regard to a specific market.

We live in an age of taking offence, and also in an age of giving offence. Certain things will close doors to certain segments of the market, certain things may open doors to other segments of the market. Deliberately giving offence can sometimes gain you more market attention than any other means. Different things offend different people. If you avoid a word to avoid giving offence to one group, your omission may offend another group.

There is no universal win in this game. You pick your market and you play to it. The same thing that gets the door slammed in your face by one group can open doors for you with another.

  • 2
    The same thing that gets the door slammed in your face by one group can open doors for you with another. Trump-speak! Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 22:32
  • The more I think on this, the more I like this answer. Especially since it kind of covers the two basic ends of the context. I feel like based on all of these answers I know how I can make this work.
    – Jake
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 15:16

Besides Mark Bakers excellent observation that your writing must be targeted to its audience and cannot be judged outside of that audience's expectations and preferences, there is another factor to consider:

There is a standard for fiction.

That standard encompasses, for example, a certain tempus (past tense), a certain narrative perspective (third person), and other conventions. These conventions are perceived by the majority of readers as neutral, that is, they are both familiar and meaningless. As soon as you devitate from the standard, that deviation will both irritate readers (which can be good, if you know what you do, and bad, if you don't) and convey a specific meaning in the context of your writing.

One part of the standard for fiction is what is commonly called "standard written English". Every language has such a standard. It consists of certain grammatical rules, a certain conventional style, and – this is interesting in the context of your question – a specific vocabulary. This standard written vocuabulary marks certain words (or ideas) as "obscene" or "vulgar" and prefers to exculde them.

Of course much contemporary fiction is no longer written in that neutral standard style but rather attempts to express the life experience of its protagonists through deviations from the standard. Many readers enjoy such "personalized" accounts and the authenticity and relevance they bring.

But writing is not speaking. No matter how authentic and "spoken" such narratives may appear, they are nevertheless normalizations of actual speech much in the same way that standard written English is a normalization of standard spoken English.

If you want to write "how you speak", you must create a written variant of your way of speaking (or thinking). Simply transcribing what you say is not writing. Writing is artifice and its product is artificial, no matter how "authentic" it may appear to the lay person – that is, the non-writer, who is unaware of the difference between written and spoken language.

Finally, you apparently misunderstand the concept of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech means that you can express any idea that you want. It does not mean that you can express that idea however you like. For example, you are free to say that you dislike the current president of the United States, but you are not free to express that opinion by calling him names.

As for your example, there are many other ways to express the thought behind "raping a kitten" that are less offensive. If you use such a brutal phrase, perhaps because your sensibilites have been brutalized on /b/, you should know what you do or you will marginalize your writing and create something unpublishable.

  • 9
    I have to generally disagree. If you're quoting direct speech, it can be anything. It doesn't hafta be Standard Written English (SWE) because many people don't speak that way. If it's the narrator talking (narrating), then yes it should be SWE. I also have to disagree with the end of your penultimate paragraph. People are free to call the President names or else every talk-show host would have been arrested by now (and I'm pretty sure the current President would enforce that if at all possible). Throwing eggs, tho, no. And yet the FCC enforces bleeping of certain curse words. Funny old world.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 9:54
  • 15
    "Freedom of speech" means that the government cannot arrest you for calling the president names. Throwing eggs at anyone, president or not, is not speech but action, and a form of assault, so that's not protected. In fiction, you are indeed free to use such colorful metaphors without being arrested, but you run a risk of not having any audience. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 10:41
  • 10
    If people were not free to call the president of the United States names, American jails would be even more crowded than they are. The_concept_ of freedom of speech is that you can say anything you like using any words you like. Freedom of speech laws are compromised to different degrees in different ways in different countries by things like slander, libel, and hate crime laws. In general they are compromised a lot less in the US than most other places.
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 12:59
  • 1
    @what I only used the freedom of speech thing as an example of a throw away answer. I have seen some of those types of answers on here.
    – Jake
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 16:36
  • 2
    People, let's keep this civilized. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 16:44

I would say no, not really, you don't have to avoid offensive hyperbole just for its own sake. But there is a risk of losing audience and therefore you might be trying to think of ways to minimize this risk.

Your last sentence touched on the key thing here: suspension of disbelief.

One of the main goals for a good story is to help the reader gain suspension of disbelief. In other words, the story should be believable, or as believable as possible. (This also applies to weird fantasy novels with elfs or unicorns by trying to make the plot believable, e.g., the characters behave believably.)

Let's say the main character is a biker gang guy. If this guy is always talking in perfect grammar and never says anything offensive, it would not be believable. I would in fact lose interest in the book because of this. Another example could be kids, angry kids, drunk college kids (any college kids?), anyone in general who's very angry, anyone who just experienced something awful like the death of his best friend right in front of his eyes, etc.

On the other hand, a pastor who talks that way all the time would not be very believable either.

Keep in mind that first impressions are very important. If the book starts out this way, I would also introduce a good (believable) reason right away. Only if it were kids or young guys could it perhaps be left on its own, and in which case, your target audience should be people in the same age group.

Edit: I forgot one thing. The main character who talks this way could be a fierce believer in free speech, and lets everyone know. Maybe also he is an anarchist or patriot or something else entirely. But again, you risk putting off a bunch of your audience because such things are more offensive than normal. It is another option, though.

Another option: Make this a gritty novel. At the beginning, show some nasty side of big city life. This will paint a context of a dystopia or harsh world in which much vulgar language is more acceptable.

  • 1
    Although such an offensive turn of phrase might not ruin my suspension of disbelief, it would probably still take me out of the story by making me think Good grief, why would the author write this? So, know your audience. Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 20:38
  • @MissMonicaE actually I got it from a conversation with a few friends in college. Basically, we were talking about some crime thing that happened in a show we were watching. Someone mentioned off the cuff that that was the worst crime ever to which one of us, I assume me because I always do, said "what about raping a kitten". And after the near universal shock, we agreed that yes raping a kitten was far worse than what we were talking about.
    – Jake
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 16:01
  • @MissMonicaE I was obviously super edgy in college.
    – Jake
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 16:02
  • @Jake well, okay then Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 18:48
  • 1
    @MissMonicaE That is understandable and there will always be people who just do not want to read certain kind of stories. There is no way to force anyone to sit down and finish your book. I was just trying to find ways of putting it in a context that makes more sense to talk that way. P.S., the OP's original example starts with "I have realized that I am a terrible person." This is somewhat endearing to me and would increase my tolerance for vulgar language.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 12:50

Offensive or highly unusual expressions are dangerous.They risk taking the reader out of the story and make him react negatively to the author instead of following the story. You need to justify your expressions to the reader.

This means two things: First, you must convince the reader that you had good reason to write it. Second, you must convince the reader that the character had sufficient reason to say it. Second criteria is easier since the fictional character was not paid to please the reader and is not even required to be aware of the reader. Authors by contrast are expected to remember their audience and not offend it. See Mark Baker's answer for more on that.

So what is a good reason to write something like that?

It could directly advance the story. A character says something offensive and it directly causes something that advances the story. If another character gets pissed off at the offensive language and the offender gets in trouble, the reader has no need to get offended themselves. And if the development is funny or exciting the reader will accept the offensive language as price of admission.

It could establish character personality, mental state or relationship to other characters. Often all at once. Your example could be used to show that the character: 1. Has a juvenile sense of humor and thinks saying such things makes him cool, 2. Is at the moment trying to make himself look cooler probably because he feels insecure, or 3. Is talking to someone he wants to impress with his coolness.

If the reader knows you are using the expression as a part of such author admissible goal it is fine. Usually this means that you need to straight out and on the spot tell the reader that is what you are doing. If the reader has to guess, you will get mail.

Even if the context makes it easy for the reader to guess correctly your intent they will not see it as a good enough reason to offend them unless you add something that makes the intent clear. Essentially making it explicit by adding narrator or in character explanation tells the reader that you did it for a reason and it will be important later.

If it won't come important later, do not do it.

Inoffensive oddities like the biker speaking with perfect grammar and Sunday school vocabulary with occasional quotes of Shakespeare have a lower standard of importance. You still need to establish the reason before the reader has time to guess.

What is sufficient reason for the character to say it

This is typically the easier part since we all are constantly struggling with the issue of what language is appropriate to use. There are some differences to real life, though. Fictional characters are not really expected to be as random as real people. This basically means that you have to clearly establish the reason the character says what he says. He can't say it "just because" unless you specifically establish he is a character who says things "just because".

The only real issue is that you need to remember to tell the reason. If your character uses offensive language to impress his comrades with his coolness, the scene where he does that needs to tell that to the reader. If that explanation seems excessive or out of place that probably means that the character does not have sufficient reason to use such language.

Odd language is easier since after the first explanation it works as its own reminder. So if you use offensive language, you should make it memorable by using hyperbole or some other method.


Probably unnecessary, but I want to be clear that the above is a collection of my personal thoughts on the matter and anyone who thinks of it as advice they should follow or in any way authoritative is wrong. Its only purpose and appropriate use is as food for your own thoughts and opinions. This is not really proper for a SE answer, but to be honest I almost always aim for answers that are potentially useful rather than correct. People only ask or answer questions if they are interested in the topic and want to know what other people think. Or so I tell myself, anyway.


As many answers have pointed out the use of offensive language, and rather or not a term would even be considered offensive, is going to vary a lot by attended audience.

Take "Nigger Jim" from "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". Today even the name today is pretty offensive. His actions in the story are often regarded as offensive and stereo typical. The plot points where he was sold as an escaped slave and Tom and Huck use him to act out their fantasies, is today down right immoral. But back when the story was written (1884), Jim was considered to be a great addition, adding sympathy for post slavery African Americans, and showing that "black guys" have positive traits too. But not so much these days.

The point is that, rather a passage is found to be offensive or not, is totally dependent on audience.

With that said, there are reasons to be purposefully offensive. It's humorous when done correctly. It's more realistic in a intimate relationship. It can give your subject room for personal growth.

You mention that it's close to how you would speak. A lot about writing is examining motivations for actions. Why do you (did you) speak that way? What made you adjust your speech? Is that a "trial" you want your subject to go through?

With those questions answered, keep in mind "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". You man not intend a thing to be offensive, but 100 years from now, who knows how it will be perceived.

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