Authors have an awful lot to think about when we sit down to write a book or short story (or script, or whatever), and one of those things is audience. Who is it you expect to read this book? Believe it or not, “everybody” is an acceptable answer. But most of us will be able to narrow that down some. There are books that are clearly written for certain age groups, and stuff like middle grade chapter books come with a set of rules—and rules that should be taken at face value, not as a challenge, if you want to see that book published and in stores and libraries. The brilliant fake children’s picture book Go the Fuck to Sleep aside, if you really want parents to buy your book and read it to their single-digit aged kids, Everyone Shits is not going to fly.

But what about when that decision is less obvious? What about all those other categories in which the rules are either unwritten or do not exist at all?

If you sit down to write a novel with an adult audience in mind, you probably still won’t see your book on the shelf if you swear in the title, but inside the text, all bets are off. We’ll leave out content questions, like how much detail in a sex scene is “too much,” if there is such a thing as “too much,” and at what point your fantasy novel becomes “erotic fantasy” and then “fantasy porn.” Another post at least in that territory.

For today let’s just keep it about swearing, those pesky four-letter words that every year seem to get less scary for bigger portions of the book-buying, TV-watching, game-playing, and reality show-loving audience. The late George Carlin’s list of the seven words you can’t say on television is obsolete by at least a few. So what can you get away with?

More than once—believe me—while I was at Wizards of the Coast, we sat down and discussed this issue. When and to what degree can we get away with “swears.” Back in the day, TSR (in response to some ridiculous claims from fringe groups that D&D promoted a belief in the occult) adopted the already hopelessly outdated Comics Code. When I first started there in 1995 that was forcefully wedged into my consciousness and time and again I cringed my way through deleting one word here, a sentence there, to try to keep myself employed. Set aside that my boss at the time, Bryan Thomsen, personally worked with author Simon Hawke on the Birthright novel War, in which we’re treated to S&M between a teenage boy and an adult man, a woman masturbating in a bathtub while the same teenage boy watches through a peephole, and more. But he was the boss and I wasn’t, so I had to keep it clean—and anyway, we’re talking about swears not sex. All that happened without anyone using the F-word. TSR authors knew the score, so I really didn’t have to cut out too many of Carlin’s seven words, but the author who gave us the exclamation, “Tymora’s Tits!” in a Forgotten Realms short story will remain nameless as long as he continues to make regular monthly payments…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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11 Responses to TO SWEAR OR NOT TO SWEAR

  1. keithstrohm says:

    Great post! I was just going to do a drive-by shouting Tymora’s Ti–s, but I opted not to. The author who wrote that must have been filled with lame sauce! 🙂

  2. jakeescholl says:

    I was wondering how to work around it. I had a character yell an F-bomb, and changed it, due to it being an Epic Fantasy novel. If it was Contemporary Fantasy like the “Dresden Files” or an “Anita Blake” book, it would have worked.

  3. merannicuill says:

    So, blue language means “asshole”? Is the Christian right controlling our everyday language now?

    We have No Idea what the everyday speech was like in any era, since those who report or write change up the events they see for publications, which have always (well, mostly) catered to what is perceived as their main readership.

    It’s my experience that most people swear, a LOT. Drop something, listen to what you hear (a quiet “shit” is usually heard)…

    I guess it comes down to how “real” you want to portray your characters.

  4. dmurin says:

    Hmmmm. . . .I wonder if I could guess at the author who gave us “Lady Luck’s breasts” in such colorful terms. . . . ; )

  5. Laura says:

    I swear I read the book that Tymora’s Tit’s was in. I laughed out loud. Dumb!

  6. Pingback: WRITE-AROUNDS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  7. Pingback: WHAT CAN YOU GET AWAY WITH IN FICTION? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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