I'm writing a YA novel where most of the characters are in their teens or early 20's. One of my characters has some "colorful" language in certain situations, (e.g. she twists her ankle, hears some shocking news, etc.) So far, because she only uses profanities as a kind of reaction I've been able to get away with adding a little line that says, "she cursed" or something like that.

I've been careful not to actually spell out any profanities just to keep the novel more kid friendly. So a parent can skim the book and decide it's fine for their young teenager to read.

The issue I'm running into now is that I have an older adult character that I think would cuss like a sailor casually throughout dialogue. Is there a way that I can show this character slipping profanities into dialogue without spelling out the harsher words and without drawing the reader out of the story? or should I either, bite the bullet and slip in some actual profanities or write this character without the colorful vocab?

  • A quick question before my solution, but what is the narrative voice of this story... There are a few tactics you could employ.
    – hszmv
    Dec 4, 2020 at 17:46
  • 1
    As you said, you can imply profanities without actually writing them. Ex: The string of swearing she let loose would make even a sailor mortified. Dec 4, 2020 at 18:19
  • @Ian54: Or as I was going onto suggest, have the swears like a sailor character get interrupted before he/she actually finishes the word. Or, if they are friendly to the protaganist, actually understand they don't like swear words and have them self-censor.
    – hszmv
    Dec 4, 2020 at 18:34
  • Maybe just replace [potty language here] with censored. Sure it doesn't look the best, but if you do it right, it can be pretty funny. SCP will black out profanity or label it as [redacted], so maybe you could do that. Dec 4, 2020 at 19:02
  • @Ceramicmrno0b: SCP does this in part for the sites style guide which requires all it's fiction to be written in a form as if they were written by a top secret government lab report that was leaked or became publically available due to a FOIA request (where [redacted] tags are quite common and often redact some seemingly harmless info for what outsiders might not see as valid reasons]. The [redacted] profanities used by those characters are intended as dry humor as the redaction is the censor's own moral embarassment and a poor cover of what is actually said.
    – hszmv
    Dec 4, 2020 at 19:13

1 Answer 1


It depends. I think that first, you need to decide your audience. You said you were writing a YA novel, and profanity is one of the things that makes YA. Even if your characters are older, if it’s kid-friendly it’s technically not YA. I’m writing a series where my characters are older teens, but my audience is still middle school age and it wouldn’t be YA.

So I think you need to ask yourself if this is truly a YA novel. If yes, then make sure your characters are true to themselves. You can’t please everyone. If you do add profanity, then that means that only your targeted audience will pick it up, because they are the ones who like to read about it.

Some people probably won’t be allowed to read your books anyway. (My parents (I’m under sixteen) won’t let me read Harry Potter because it has “dark magic” even though there’s nothing wrong with it :( sad.)

So ask yourself who your audience is. Once you have that figured out, ask yourself what your audience expects in your book. Most people who read YA expect profanity. If that’s truly what they expect and want, add it in.

  • I don't know if it's true that most people who read YA expect profanity. Sure, it can depend on the target audience, but I would avoid thinking anyone who reads YA is fine with profanities. You should consider the type of book your writing and the characters in your book. If it's realistic fiction or set in high school or college, someplace where you would expect such language, sure. However, other genres may not require such language, so I would avoid using it in certain areas. The bottom line is to be true to your characters, genre, and plotline. Dec 4, 2020 at 18:14
  • Agreed. I would say Harry Potter is hard to identify as it aged with it's intended audience... the earlier books are much more friendly for an 11 year old than the final books, which were more in line with YA reader. Even then, swears were never explicitly written (one of the main three characters, Ron, has a very filfthy mouth but the actual swears he says are covered up by the narrator saying he swore or saying that other characters reacted to his language in a way consistent with a particular swear.).
    – hszmv
    Dec 4, 2020 at 19:17

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