How Much Profanity Do You Need In A Novel?

How Much Profanity Do You Need In Your Novel?


In this post we answer the question, ‘How much profanity do you need in your novel?’ and give you tips for including it.

This is the third post in a series on How Much questions. Previously we looked at how much blood you need in a crime novel and how much sex you need in a sex scene. In future, we’ll look at how much detail you need in a novel and how much magic you need in a fantasy novel. In this post, we explore how much profanity you need in your novel.

Does your character say ‘Oh fiddle sticks!’ or do they use a stronger phrase?. Vocabulary shows us who a character is, but how many f-bombs can you drop in one story?

How Much Profanity Do You Need In Your Novel?

This is always a question that makes me smile and like most things in the writing world – there is a clear divide. You either do it or you don’t. I suppose it is true of the real world as well. You either curse like a sailor or you don’t.

If you don’t, it may be hard to make your characters curse and if you do swear it may be challenge not to have every single page reduce to a list of f-bombs. You can, of course, do what you want, but your chosen genre will give you a clue of what is expected.

  1. If your story is full of drug dealers and pimps, it would be odd to hear a character say, ‘Oh fudge, we’re going to be in real trouble because of this blooper.’
  2. If you are writing a funny family drama with PTA moms, it could be fun to have the queen bee drop a f-bomb while she is holding a mic in assembly.

It’s all about your story. Let’s some consider some ways to work around or include profanity.

🤬 Implied Profanity

You only have to mention that your character cursed. You do not have to use the swear words.

Example: Jane cursed and yanked her purse back. 

🤬 Reported Profanity

You can have a conversation about the profanity without including the words.

Example: ‘You are not serious? I can’t believe she said that.’

🤬🤬 Hierarchy Of Bad Words

Not all swear words are created equal. There is a hierarchy. Damn is entry level, 💩 is bad, but not the worst. Of course it gets worse from there and because I don’t want you to get fired for reading dirty words on the work computer I’ll leave it up to your imagination.

🤬🤬🤬 Plenty Of Profanity

If it suits your story and your genre use it. Just remember, less is more and one well-placed swear word is better than lines and lines of f-bombs.

Tips For Using Profanity In Your Novel:

  1. Know your genre. Certain genres allow for more profanity, some don’t allow for any.
  2. Know your characters. Some people say, ‘darn it’, and others say, ‘fuck it’, know who you are dealing with.
  3. Opposites work. If your character never swears what happens when they do and vice versa.
  4. Less is always more.
  5. Write out the word. If you are going to use profanity spell it properly.

The Last Word

How your character speaks will convey so much about them. Our vocabulary gives us away the moment we open our mouths. Profanity is just another tool in your writer’s toolbox. Use it wisely.

TOP TIP: Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook

Mia Botha by Mia Botha

Buy Mia’s book on how to write short stories: Write the crap out of it and other short story writing advice

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This article has 2 comments

  1. Edward Swing

    Don’t forget the option of made-up profanity. Particularly in science fiction (and less so in fantasy), writers have created their own futuristic swear words, from “tanj” in Larry Niven’s Known Space series (an acronym of “there ain’t no justice”) to Battlestar Galactica’s “frak” and “felgercarb”, original swear words can add a dash of humor and a hint of world-building too.

    • Mia Botha

      Yes! That’s a great suggestion, Edward. Thanks for sharing.

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