Coarse Language in Teen Novels, by Paul Volponi
Probably the first rule of being a novelist is to be truthful and honest in everything you produce. That means putting the right words into your characters’ mouths. For me, part of that truthfulness is occasionally having my characters use profanities. Now let me make this 100% clear. I never have my characters cursing to simply look cool or grab the reader’s attention. I only have them do so when the scene dictates a tense or angry mood in which real people might use these very emotional words.
Black and White, which centers on racial prejudice, has a fair number of racial slurs. So does Response, which is a about NYC hate crime, and Rooftop, which is about the shooting of an unarmed black teen by the police. The language is there because these are the real words I have heard people use in the real-life situations mirrored in these novels. The books just wouldn’t ring true if the language wasn’t correct. People committing a hate crime don’t say “please” and “thank you” when they’re beating some one over the head with an aluminum baseball bat.
Rikers High is about teens going to school while awaiting trial in the world’s largest jail. As you can imagine, the daily conversation of these teens, even in some less-than-dramatic situations, was froth with what some would deem offensive language. But that’s real. Should the writer change this reality and omit this language? If so, what would be the rational?
I have never had a publisher ask me to remove a curse word because they thought it would hurt sales. Many of my books are taught in high schools and even middle schools. It is true that I have encountered several teachers, from very conservative US states, who tell me that they are afraid some parents might complain about the language if they used my novels. But I’m very content to lose a few schools here and there, when so many reluctant readers gravitate to the novels, feeling the work relates to the lives they actually live.
Recently, I received a letter from a parent who was upset that a character of mine uttered a curse word as he was being robbed at gunpoint. The parent said that I was a bad influence on teens today because of the profanity. Sadly enough, the complaint did not reflect any concern over the fact that a gun was being pointed at someone in the scene. Most of the teens with whom I work pick up on that parent’s inconsistency almost immediately. As a writer, you will have to decide for yourself what language your characters will use during tense moments. My standing rule is: If it doesn’t feel and sound real, it probably won’t ring true to smart and street-wise teenage readers.
Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com
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