Vulgarity, sex, and other offensive things

As always, my opinion regarding asking “should I …” when writing your story should always be answered with “yes, absolutely, if you want to”.  But as always there can be room to discuss the impact, and nuances of that answer.

Graphics violence, explicit sex, vulgar language, lewd behaviour … should these be in our fiction?

The answer to that isn’t so clear cut, honestly.  Then again, perhaps it is.  Tough decision.  On one hand, they’re a part of our reality, so of course they should be there for realism — and even fantasy shouldn’t shy away from them unless it’s trying to paint a rosier setting.  On the other … how detailed a picture do we wish to paint for the youths?

Frankly, in most regards, I see it like this:  language should be accurate.  If swearing isn’t common in your fantasy world, then don’t use any.  If you’re writing teenagers in modern America, then odds are some or many of them will swear (probably, rather a lot).  We were all teenagers once, or possibly still are, and we probably hear teenagers talking to one another at the mall — profanity is a way of life.  The key is to learn the forbidden words of the day.  30 or more years ago the scary word that you just didn’t use if you could help it, in conversation, in dialogue, anywhere, was fuck.  Now?  Fucking fucked the fucker; that’s a sentence someone might say in a crowded street at the top of their lungs.  You’ll shock few with it.  Nigger, however … that will get people’s attention in a hurry.  That’s not to say it shouldn’t be used in the interest of accurate dialogue, but you should — for the sake of social acceptability of your work — weigh your options on using it at all, and be sure your dialogue uses it accurately or you’ll simply piss a lot of people off either for using it, or using it wrong, or … simply put, it’s the new fuck.

Also, what age are you writing for?  If for children, that’s a tough one.  I mean, as I understand it, in French any age says zut, merde, pute, et al because there is no dang/darn, shoot, and fudge.  It makes me wonder if, just probably, you find those words in French childrens’ books, therefore (I can’t read French, and don’t much enjoy the language, so I’m speculating from what I know of it from people who do).  In English, however, we tend to frown upon using profanity in front of children, so it’s probably seen as best to keep such language out of your childrens’ books.  Just remember, legal age of majority is not the same as adulthood versus childhood.  Many people are not so much children any longer in their language, experience, attitudes, etc. once they’re somewhere between 10 and 14, certainly by the time they’re 15.  Still, it’s your story, if you want little Brother Bear saying “Fuck this shit” to Momma Bear in your kids’ story, it’s your kids’ story, just don’t be surprised when every protect the children organisation in the country is calling for your head on a spike.  Personally, I prefer to be true to the characters.  Some people swear like the only vocabulary they have is entirely vulgarities, others blush if they say ‘heck’.  As such there are swear words in my stories, but it’s dialogue and by people who speak that way, it’s not meant for impact (well, at one point, but that’s after you’ve got to know Lauren well enough to realise that, while nothing too shocking about ‘fuck’ or its presence in the story, its presence in her mouth is shocking), it’s just meant to characterise.

Violence.  Fun one that.  Certainly let’s leave that out of the little kids’ works.  I mean, come one, do you really want to give little Timmy nightmares?  Then again … ever read the old fairy tales as the brothers Grimm published them?  How about the older versions they worked from?  Maybe, if we don’t shelter little Suzy, she won’t be so bothered by a bit of visceral depiction and graphic violence.  After that … stand outside a cinema for 20 minutes some Friday night.  Believe me, by the time Jimmy is 10, Jimmy will watch Terminator and laugh at the cheesy special effects (ah, the expectations of the advanced CGI generation), you won’t shock him with some blood and gore.  After that it’s just a question of how disgustingly visceral you should be.  Do we give a highly detailed and graphic account of someone committing hari kari?  Do we do it in first person POV?  Mmmm … plenty of full grown adults, even a few who’ve been in war, might be squeamish to read that.  Doesn’t mean don’t do it, just remember — a reader who throws up, is a reader who may not read your next book — so you might ask yourself, do I need to be so graphic?  I base it entirely on tone of the story.  Now & Forever will never go into graphic detail of any violence that might be occurring; Færie Patrolon the other hand, might a bit — though we won’t be seeing anything as graphic as Kill Bill.  

Sex.  Funny thing, sex … what’s so wrong with it?  Sex is great, it makes kids, it doesn’t hurt anyone (certain very frightening fetishes aside — RP is one thing, doing that stuff for real!?  ~shudder~).  Still, it’s dirty, and something you should shield the children from.  Again, if you want to keep the PTA off your back, then leave it out of your Amelia Bedelia inspired fiction.  Stuff for the middle school/junior high crowd?  High school?  Frankly — if they’ve hit puberty, then odds are pretty good they know what sex is.  Unless I went to a very unusual school … they’ve got a fair notion by the time they’re a year or two away, I believe I was starting to get the clue around 3rd grade, myself.  So now the question is, fade to black or get explicit?  Explicit will almost certainly get people on your back if you write for a crowd under 25, but depending on details you probably won’t get much flak if you keep the target 16+.  So, again, is the exact detail of exactly who put what where and in what order so vital as to risk alienating readers?  It might be.  Certainly I could see a very clear argument for explicit sex scenes in a teen fiction work, I really can.  Point of note, even for the more puritanical crowd:  even the ones who graduate high school as virgins, because of those little “not until married pledges” … not personally, but some people I know quite well … they tend to be very technical on the whole virginity thing; put bluntly, an amazing number of ‘virgins’ are quite versed in oral and anal activities.  By being explicit you’re not providing these ‘kids’ with anything they haven’t already seen, done, or fantasised about unless you’re digging into the twisted depths of fetishist sites, then you might be providing a colourful piece of education.  Personally, I fade to black.  I always feel silly getting specific; but if it doesn’t violate the tone of the story then go for it, but if it would … well … for example, the sex scene in Ready or Not (uhm, spoiler alert?) is not so much fade to black as fade to the emotions rather than the bodies because the mechanical aspects of the event would have been discordant with the tone of the moment.

As always, you’ll write very little that’s safe enough not to offend someone.  I mean, have you ever mentioned that Jesus drank wine to a Temperance League member?  As with violating the rules of physics or the laws of grammar, do it with eyes wide open.  Remember, while in the end you’re writing for yourself, if you plan to publish then you are also writing for the public.  The public might be 7billion souls upon this globe alone, so there’ll always be someone who agrees with you, you ought to ask yourself “how many people are going to like reading about a toddler prostitute assassin” then ask “how many parents are likely to buy this storybook about said toddler for their sweet little toddler’s bedtime storybook” … no one says you can’t write and draw it and put it out there, just please don’t be surprised when you raise eyebrows and when your sales are low.

Taboos, those glorious taboos.  Society has expectations.  It’s our jobs to question, probe, exploit, reinforce, shatter, violate, uphold, and ignore those expectations, those mores, those taboos … but if you do it with eyes open you do it in a meaningful way.  When you are aware that most parents won’t like a storybook for little Timmy to be about a toddler assassin prostitute, then you will approach the narrative, the themes, the plot, etc. rather differently, one would assume, than if you take it for granted that no parent would ever take issue with a storybook about an assassin prostitute aged three.

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