To Curse or Not to Curse

profanityThe topic of using profanity in novels came up for discussion in a group I’m part of on Facebook. This is a topic that is diverse and can be very divisive, especially in Christian writing circles. People have strongly-held beliefs about language, on both extremes.

There are those who say “words are just words, they only have the meaning we ascribe to them, they are not inherently good or evil, but are only what we make them.”

Then there are those who adhere fully to the spirit of Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen,” and consider even euphemisms like “gosh” and “dang” to be equivalent to taking God’s name in vain and literally damning someone.

Most people fall somewhere in between, some leaning a little more to one side than the other.

And all the personal beliefs about what a person can and should say themselves get muddled when it comes to writing fiction. What someone does in their personal life may not be the same as the things their characters do in a story. I don’t use bad language (okay, sometimes I do, if I’m ranting to my husband or in certain other contexts), but I don’t scatter my general vocabulary with colorful language, and I don’t let my kids say inappropriate things, to the point where my kids think the “S-word” is “shut-up” or “stupid.” But my characters aren’t me. They don’t always have the same beliefs or standards, and they don’t set the example for my family. And sometimes they do things that I don’t do.
So what’s a writer to do?

Should the book gloss over language, or be true to the character? Is it okay in dialogue if it’s the “bad guy” who is saying it? Should it be referenced as “someone cursing” or “someone swearing” or should it be left out completely?

Much like any topic relating to standards of Christian behavior, the Bible has some standards and guidelines that can be applied, but doesn’t specifically outline what the exact dos and don’ts are, or how much is too much, or where to draw the line.

As with consuming alcohol, watching certain movies, going dancing, and countless other actions, acceptable language according the standards of traditional “Christian” behavior struggles to find balance with personal freedom and grace.

In the discussion, the two sides that came to the forefront were:

  • Be real and authentic to your story and characters, even if it means spattering colorful language through your story.
  • It’s possible (and preferable) to make do without inserting swearing, and will give you a broader audience because even in the secular market there are those who prefer to read “clean” stories.


And, as with most things, it comes down to a personal choice.

Personally, I feel that it is somewhat incongruous and possibly even hypocritical to whitewash your story of all language, while retaining other questionable activities.

Suppose, for example, you have a suspense story. Your antagonist “bad guy” is trying to murder your heroine and your heroine and hero have to uncover whatever it is the antagonist is trying to keep hidden without dying. Your antagonist, being a bad guy, spends time in bars, picking up women, and plotting murder (plus running drugs or whatever bad thing the hero and heroine are trying to uncover). In the Christian market, you can portray all these things, detailing what a dastardly character he is, but if he says “$#*!” you’ve crossed the line.

There is an argument for the idea that seeing it in written out imprints it on your mind and you can’t unsee it. There is an element of truth to that, but I don’t think it’s the only thing to consider, and the same could be true of graphic violence or sensuality, both of which are present to some extent even in Christian novels.

There’s also the notion that including it is tantamount to endorsing it, but again, I think that’s a double-standard when there are other “sinful” behaviors being described.

The line becomes even fuzzier, however, when a main character or “good guy” is the one doing the “bad” things, and not just the “bad guy.” I’m always reminded of Grace Livingston Hill books when I think of this. Don’t get me wrong—I’m in no way coming down on GLH, and I really loved her books when I was younger—but her main characters, even pre-salvation, were still “good” people, who didn’t wear nail polish or make-up or enjoy the night life or any of those other “worldly” things, and always knew there was something else out there with meaning, and were just waiting to find out it was really Jesus they’ve been needing and wanting all along. GLH is an icon of Christian historical romance, beloved and read by millions. And yet her characters are pretty much all the same one-dimensional, flat people. Which, in some ways, is exactly what the Christian market wants.

In the supernatural horror story I recently finished, my main character not only doesn’t get saved, she also uses some colorful language. She’s a cop, she’s been through a trauma, and it’s part of who she is, as is the fact that she has no qualms about premarital sex. Her character would not even make sense if she said, “By gum, these otherworldly monsters sure are a handful. Well, poo, I guess I should stop them from their killings and reign of terror.”

Could I have made her a good, upright citizen who never says bad things? Sure. But then it would have been a different story. And someone else already wrote that story.

The real trouble, of course, is that readers have certain expectations when they pick up a book. If you open “Fifty Shades of Grey” and are shocked that there’s sex in there, that’s on you. But if you pick up a Grace Livingston Hill novel and find sex, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting through it.

In the Christian market, readers have certain expectations, and those expectations include refraining from any language that might be deemed offensive.

And so those of us who write from a Christian worldview but like to push boundaries end up in a weird no-man’s-land, much the same as the one in which Christian spec-fic writers find themselves in. Too “Christian” for the secular market, and too “worldly” for the Christian market.

It might help if we had a rating system for books as we do with movies, but since we don’t, we have to do the best with what we have.

And so, as with so many other things, in writing and in life, it comes down to a personal choice. One piece of writing advice that holds true over many different aspects of writing, is “follow the story.” The story you write may be fine without any profanity (or sex, or violence, or whatever). My Legends Unleashed story is “clean,” and that works for the story. But my supernatural horror doesn’t work without violence and some language. That’s not the story it is, and if I tried to make it so, it would dilute the story and weaken it.

Of course, we all have to make the choices about what we read and write, and how that reflects our consciences and integrity. I know what I’m comfortable with and where I land on most things (although that line changes and evolves the more I write), and I know what sorts of things are over the line for me. And my line is going to be different from someone else’s, even in the same genre, with the same religious and personal convictions, and in the same publishing circles.

So, too, you must decide what you feel comfortable with, what doesn’t strain your conscience, what convicts you and uplifts you, and what serves a larger purpose.

In the comments on the discussion that started this line of thinking, people linked several blog posts on the subject. They all offer good insights and food for thought, so if this is a subject you’re giving thought to or struggling with, I encourage you to read these other perspectives.


Tip #55 and Tip #56 on this page.

A Response to Three Common Christian Arguments Against Using Foul Language in Fiction

A Character in my faith-based novel just dropped an ‘f-bomb.’ Now what?

It’s Not The Words, But What’s Behind The Words That Matters

Should I Swear or Should I @#$%?






About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

13 comments on “To Curse or Not to Curse

  1. A lot depends on genre expectations, too. In a fast-paced globe-trotting thriller, a hero is expected to drop the occasional swear while narrowly escaping death. On the other hand, swearing and sex is massively frowned upon in cozy mysteries. (There’s a reason that everybody dies of poison in cozies–there’s no blood.)

    So when debating how much your character can swear, consider your genre. In spec fic, whether we like it or not, we have a grand history of aberrant sexual practices. And the accompanying language. Is it any wonder that it’s only now that spec fic is going more mainstream?

  2. People have this weird idea that if you don’t have a character cuss, they sound like Barney the Dinosaur. “Golly, gosh gee willickers” or some similar nonsense. You /can/ have dastardly bad guys, manly men, and even *gasp* military folk without dropping the f-bomb or using other strong language. Sarcasm, actions, looks … you can communicate a lot without becoming crass.

    The best bad guy I’ve read, for example, is Admiral Thrawn from a Timothy Zahn trilogy (that I’m blanking on the name of). No expletives were needed to make him a more worthy opponent.

    Gordon R. Dickson wrote some military sci-fi (Dorsai!, Soldier Ask Not, etc) and didn’t need foul language.

    Louis L’Amour wrote westerns with manly men and serious bad guys … no BLEEP needed.

    It /can/ be done, but if other writers choose not to, that’s their choice. I /do/ think it drops out part of a prospective audience, though.

    One of the publishers I work for doesn’t forbid expletives, but they have an escalation policy. Stubbing your toe is not cause for an f-bomb, but almost getting squashed by a truck might be.

    .Personally, I would rather not have bleepable language in my entertainment or real life. I don’t condemn people who swear (or have their characters do so), but I don’t enjoy expletive laden entertainment as much as I might have otherwise.

  3. One of the things that I have a hard time with is the double-standard. Sure, it can be done to have evil bad guys who don’t swear. And it can be done well. (See the fiction writing tips I linked.)
    But why is using bad language so much worse than showing the character drinking or having sex or murdering people? Why is it that those words are frowned upon, even if it’s showing what the character is actually like, being true to what they would actually say, when it’s fine to show them doing the other “bad” things that they do?
    It feels hypocritical to me to have one particular thing (bad words) be taboo, while other equally questionable practices (or worse ones) are perfectly acceptable.

    • Well said. But it’s the same in real life. Some sins that are habitually practiced are glossed over (gossip, gluttony, etc.) and others are not.

      • Yes indeed.
        Of course, I understand we’re all in various stages of growth, and not everyone is convicted of the same sins at the same time, but blatant hypocrisy, picking and choosing which sins are the “really bad” ones, etc., bugs me.

  4. Well put, Avily. Bravo, author.

  5. I don’t write “Christian Fiction,” but I am a Christian author of secular fiction. Unfortunately I think it’s probably not possible to step outside of genre expectations with your language choices, but as a rule, I tend to use foul language very sparingly and I appreciate it most when other authors do, too. My preference has nothing whatsoever to do with being offended by the language. I just think cuss words, in both fiction and real life, if overused, lose impact. They’re powerful words, capable of expressing raw emotions in ways that tamer words often can’t. As infrequently as I use them, I would have a hard time removing them from my writer toolbox entirely.

  6. As usual, you hit the nail squarely on the head with wisdom and insight, but let me be characteristically more blunt (like Detective Foyle in Foyle’s War). I find most “clean” Christian fiction that avoids swearing or, worse, substitutes other words very unsatisfying and head-bangingly (a bad -ly adverb but it makes its point)…well, I want to say stupid but that would be callous, boorish and generally unkind. My #1 example and yes, I am about to utter That Which We Don’t Speak Of, I am going to criticize arguably the #1 cash cow of recent Christian publishing days, Left Behind. In the very first one, after the “Rapture” occurs, the non-Christian female flight attendant has just witnessed people literally vanishing, she rushes into the cockpit and exclaims, “What in the h— just happened?” Er um ah oh, no, not quite. She says, “What in the world just happened?” And having read that, I dispensed with reading the entire thing, because frankly, people, this is about as real and true as a three-headed gecko the size of Gojira on a pogo stick bouncing through downtown Phoenix. No real, true, honest unsaved person would ever say that, and the credibility of Left Behind — all of it — went out the window for me. That utterance isn’t real, isn’t true, so how can the rest be? It’s not. Not for me. I agree with you, it depends on the author. Most of the characters in my ghost story Jezebelle coming out for the general market at Halloween are not Christians and yes, gentle readers, sometimes they cuss. Because real people do. My two supporting Christian characters do not, as a rule. If I don’t have every single one of them speak in a true and honest fashion as reality dictates, my credibility is destroyed, and so is the rest of what I want to say. And you are also right about genre expectation. Christian market “clean” fiction can stay that way, and perhaps should, but if you’re writing horror for the general market, one of the expectations is graphic violence and when proper, colorful metaphors. And further, I agree with you also about drawing a line. I have a very definite line, just so you all know. And you should also all know last night I watched 5 minutes of a movie on Netflix and left never to return because every third word was a “cuss.” So yes, gentle readers, HG Ferguson has some standards :).

    Avily, thank you for speaking up and out. I wish you the best with your work, and may it (insert string of desired expletives here :)) succeed beyond your wildest expectations.

    • As the original discussion progressed, there were several people who gave several great examples of how to accomplish real, gritty characters without resorting to cussing.
      And that may work, and it may be fine.
      But I’m totally with you on it not being real.
      In my horror story, I absolutely could’ve made my character have an Orbitz Clean mouth. I could’ve showed her being tough and bold and good at her job and not had her utter a single cuss word. But it would’ve felt fake. She mutters under her breath. She has internal dialogue. She makes sassy remarks.
      If I had used euphemisms or replacements, as some suggested, (like “son of a biscuit”) it would’ve sounded corny. CKoepp above said most people have this assumption that no cussing makes you sound cheesy, and that it’s possible to do it without sounding cheesy, but while yes, it’s possible, for the most part it DOES sound cheesy. That’s why Ned Flanders is a stereotype–because he embodies exactly how people sound when they use substitutes for the curse words.
      And yes, it’s possible to show a character being cold and calculating and cruel and evil without them saying “naughty” words, but it’s rare that those people don’t say those words. You might have a sociopath who is so meticulous that even their language is carefully plotted and everything is cool and exact. And that character would be utterly terrifying partially BECAUSE they didn’t curse.
      But that’s one specific type of character.
      And most people–villains and heroes alike–sometimes let their tongues slip. That’s real. That’s relatable and believable. Because you’re absolutely right about the Left Behind thing–after the rapture, there’s no way in Dubuque she wouldn’t have said “hell.”
      And again, I keep coming back to wondering WHY.
      WHY is saying a word so much worse than anything else? Why do we shy away from having our characters run off at the mouth, when we have no problem showing them doing whatever else they’re doing? Why is bad language where the line is? What is so much worse about a “bad word” than anything else?
      You can have a scene where you describe the cold, lifeless eyes of the victim whose hair is wet from the pool of blood seeping from the gash across her throat, and we can add all the grisly details, but the second someone utters a bad word it’s suddenly no longer “clean” or “Christian.”
      I really don’t get why one is okay and the other isn’t. If we’re looking for clean reads, then by all means, let’s all emulate GLH. But if we’re going to allow the description of one type of “bad” thing, then why not another?

      • Great response, one which everyone on all sides of this debate should ponder!

        My mother taught me, “To each his own,” i.e., there should be room for different things without everybody hacking away at each other. My editor wrote a no-cussing story set in 1956 but got no small amount of “flak” for having smoke-filled bars and characters that smoke. Good Lord. This is one of the things plaguing contemporary Christian fiction, the unreality of it all. I mean no disrespect, but the “clean fiction” folks have a ve-ry narrow understanding of what makes something “clean” or “Christian,” but that doesn’t entitle people like you and me to go lawless in what we write, either. And neither of us are advocating that. There should be room for all types of fiction. And the WHY you bring up — control of what and how Christians write, by the people in charge from the top down — is one of the reasons people like you and me are looking elsewhere. It IS a tightrope, on the one hand mindless legalism and on the other, total lawlessness. Let us all keep our eyes on The Author of our stories and write our race with perseverance.

  7. […] topics that fall into a gray area. I myself have written on several of these, from the inclusion of bad language to the use of magic systems to the struggles that our characters face. One of the beautiful things […]

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