At some point or another every writer will need to draw their own line on just how far they will go with profanity in their writing. There are arguments for and against it, of course, but in the end it comes down to the writer.
Some claim it adds an air of authenticity. Others claim its entirely unnecessary. Some find a way around it. But none of us can escape it entirely.
As a reader I’ve found I have a bit of a double-standard with profanity. It doesn’t bother me much when it’s in an audio book. But it makes me rather uncomfortable to see it in print. That’s probably because I hear profanity around me regularly, while I don’t usually read things where profanity is common beyond the standard few “weaker swear-words.”
But as a writer, I prefer to not use it, use weaker, highly-common words, or find substitutes. Not everyone can get away with that, of course. I mostly can because because I write fantasy. But eventually I intend to branch out and try other genres. I may need to take up the issue again and re-evaluate.
In the mean time, however, there are a few ways to get around using language that guarantees you’ll never let your mother read your book.
Refer to it – This works especially well in first-person stories. Rather than putting swear words in their actual speech, just tell the reader they swore:
Jacob swore. “That’s the last thing I needed to hear today.”
Jacob said something I can’t repeat in polite company. “That’s the last thing I needed to hear today.”
Let the reader be the one to summon up their own swear words for you. That way your language will always be appropriate to your audience.
Use fake swear words – People do it in real life, so why not have a character who uses fake swearing, too? Plus it can help define that character’s personality:
“Cheese and crackers!” Rachel said, then blushed bright red. Swearing was clearly something she needed help with.
“J. C. on a Harley!” Rocky muttered as the car sped away. “That idiot nearly killed me!”
Create in-world profanity – This can be a speculative fiction writer’s best friend. If you’re writing about different cultures and different worlds it can only add depth and realism to that world to create a vocabulary of swearing that is unique to that world. It may often even work better than actual swear words:
Dunlaren looked up, fire in his eyes. “The Fire-lord take you!” he hissed. “Take you and burn you forever in his forge.”
“By the Seven Pillars I swear it,” Canwell repeated emphatically. “May the Underworm take me if I lie!”
Your preference as a writer is something you will need to determine. For my part, I don’t feel that strong profanity makes a book any more “authentic” , and if it’s bad enough it’ll knock me out of the story and make me consider putting the book down. But that’s me.
Certainly it’s the “in thing” to be gritty and dark, or to “keep it real.” But we work in a medium that is not necessarily intended to present photo-realistic depictions of real life. Rather our job is to present the illusion of real life. A reader often won’t realize they’re not seeing profanity if the writer doesn’t give it to them.
But if the audience you write for expects it, then you’ll need to figure out for yourself just how much to give them, and how. You know where your line is. You know what is expected in your genre. But if you haven’t already considered it, you may want to take some time and decide what you will and won’t write in your work.