Saturday, 24 May 2008

He uttered a vile oath...

...but should I tell the reader what it was?

Swearing comes from early forms of word magic - the entirely correct idea that words have power. How far should you go with swear words in a book teenagers may read?

There's a scene in Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation where Tor, out hunting on her own, finds a boy apparently unconscious in the forest. She runs to help, and is crouched over him when his eyes open and look past her. He is a decoy. 'Oh no!' she cries, spinning round to confront five men come to get her.

My daughter read this and said, 'She wouldn't say oh no.'

Minty is eighteen, the same age as Tor, and I take her opinion seriously. 'What would she say, then?'


'Ah.' I left it for a couple of months, then there was an interesting discussion on the Youwriteon forum about swearing in historical and fantasy novels. I decided I should be more creative. What about, for general abuse and disparagement;

Go shag a dragon
He thinks he's the dragon's bollocks
Oh, pick the scales off a dragon!

...and from my friend Cat;

Skirt clinger
Go lay a dragon egg
He's the northern end of a south-bound donkey
You pile of dragon dung
His ladder doesn't reach the top

I have to say, I decided my daughter was right. For the moment at any rate, Tor's dismayed reaction is what Minty's would be.


  1. Well, I spent a minute on research and found that the word "shit" has been around since at least 1585 and is probably older. (found on

    You're writing for teens; you're hardly preaching to virgin ears, especially nowadays. Sure, you can use your more colorful epithets, but shit is such a part of everyday vernacular for nearly everyone that you may as well not hide it.


  2. It's true; Minty and her friends all swear like troopers. She's got me doing it more than I used.

    I've no idea what publishers' policies are on swearing in Y.A. books. All different, perhaps?

  3. It's all about context, isn't it? I mean, as long as the swearing's not the point of the book (unless it's supposed to be) then I think you're absolutely fine. If your MC would say 'shit' then have him/her say 'shit' when it's needed and natural.

    If a word like shit is only used once in a whole then think how effictive that can be.

    Hope my ramblings have helped a little! Sorry, I'm rushing out!


  4. Thanks for the rushed ramblings.

    It is the only four-letter-word in the book; Tor learned to swear like a trooper in her two weeks in the barracks, blending in with the soldiers.

    It's staying for now.

  5. Okay, so maybe I'm not the target audience, and maybe I have a character in my book who swears pretty profusely, but I do think that there are ways of expressing frustration, fear, anger and so forth without using profanity and in many cases it can come out with even more strength, tell us something about the character and maybe take us back to the time when strong writing just didn't use coarse language.

    Instead of "Oh no!" she could mutter "Great." or "Lovely." or some other verbal sigh that summons an image of her recognizing a lousy situation and yet not losing her head. The sort of thing you would see in the eyes of an old time movie hero or heroine. A "well, this isn't good, is it?" sort of look.

    Minty is right, an eighteen year old today would say "shit". But would an eighteen year old in Tor's world? Specifically, would Tor? If she would, then shit it is. If that isn't part of who she is, then you need to find something else, something splendid, something that fits her.

    "Oh, pooper-scooper" perhaps.

    Or my daughter's favorite "Cheese and rice."

    That's just my take.

  6. I have a lot of sympathy with your view, Alan, and I'm still thinking about changing the expletive.

    There's a bit earlier in the book, about when Tor joined the army, and Stavely tried her out against his best swordsman after she easily beat the first opponent he gave her;

    Tor remembered how she had been absolutely determined to win, to show them how good she was, and be a credit to Attalor’s training. She remembered the keyed-up wait in the twilight while they fetched Garran, with soldiers gathering to watch as word went round, and the fierce concentration of the fight itself.

    They’d accepted her with respect after her victory. From them, she’d picked up the one thing her grandfather had not taught her; to swear like a trooper.

    The thing is, when you turn to find five men surrounding you with deadly intent, 'Lovely' really doesn't cover it.

  7. Been thinking about this...

    The other way you could do it (re the example above) is tell the reader she swore. eg After muttering something quite unmentionable at the men/ the five men paused for a moment, apparently shocked at the (ferociosness of the) words Tor had spat at them.

    Something like that perhaps, only better?

    The other thing maybe to not have her swear at all. A phrase like 'I don't think so' or 'not on your life' could work just as well.

    Of course, placing a 'shit' in there could be more affecting and sound more serious and gritty.

    Just thought I'd share! And, when all's said and done, I think you'll know what's right because it's your story.


  8. Aha, so we're back to 'she uttered a vile oath'!

    I doubt soldiers, notoriously foul-mouthed, would be shocked by any swearword another soldier used (they don't know she's female).

    I was biking round a roundabout in the rain yesterday, when a car pulled out in front of me. For a moment, I thought he was going to run me over. And that's a bit like what Tor thinks; she's on the ground, there are five men a few feet away; she thinks she's done for.

    What I actually said was 'shit and derision!', an expression I picked up at art college long ago.

  9. Of course it's difficult to comment on specifics without knowing the story; I like 'shit and derision' I must admit, and it sounds like it'd work.

    As I said before, what matters is that it's natural - if that's what she'd say then she needs to say it, doesn't she?


  10. This is quite an interesting problem. Being a relatively recent reader of teen fiction myself, I must say that the inclusion of some profanity where natural, such as in the instance described here definitely adds to the connection a reader may foster with your protagonist. I do believe, however, that there is some inaccuracy in the statement "Minty and her friends all swear like troopers". While it is obviously true that Minty regularly swears indiscriminately in front of small children (you can ask about this), I would not agree with the conjecture that this behaviour is shared by the rest of us.


  11. Xiong, I don't know where you picked up the idea that my daughter 'regularly swears indiscriminately in front of small children'. I certainly did not say that.

    And as for Tor swearing in front of a twelve-year-old, she may be forgiven on the grounds that she had just realized he had betrayed her to men who seemed likely to kill her.

    Maybe in those circumstances you would think of young ears, and content yourself with saying 'oh bother'.

    Most people would say something rather stronger.

  12. I would probably not content myself with saying 'oh bother' in such a circumstance, hence my comment; that a natural (read expletive) reaction adds credibility to Tor as a character one can relate to. I'm also aware of the fact that you never said such a thing about Minty; I did. And it's merely a product of several instances of misfortunate timing in public places which has led to something of an in-joke. I wasn't having a dig at all.


  13. Fret not, Xiong; when I wrote that I wasn't aware that you were a friend of Minty's, so you brought out my mother tiger act.

    She told me about the hilarious incident with the small French child learning his first swear word in a foreign tongue because of her, so now your comment makes sense.

    I used to try to stop her using bad language, but alas I failed, and she's got me using rather more instead.

    It's hard being a parent.

  14. I have to disagree: I do not swear in front of small children, or indeed anyone. I am a model of good behaviour.

  15. Hurrah!

    (When did this transformation happen, then?)