Offensive Language in Historical Fiction

Brig Berthold
2 min readAug 15, 2019


How do I justify using words that make me sick?

Those of us living in the wide world of fiction writing know the power of dialogue. A character’s use of certain words can tell the reader a lot about them. The same is true of world-building and scene-setting and even illustrating the differences between villain and hero. But how the f*** am I supposed to dance on that line?

These days, everything is offensive to at least one segment of the population. I wonder how many people sit and wait to be offended, pitchforks at the ready, eager to twist otherwise benign comments into a rallying cry.

I understand the law of unintended consequences. I understand that we’ve never been freer to communicate that we are today. This freedom opens the door to historically reserved persons who are now able to lash out from the safety of their mobile devices.

That is NOT what I’m talking about.

What is really bothering me is the moral decision I face when attempting to craft emotionally charged historical fiction.

My protagonist grew up in pre-Civil War South Carolina. Slavery was, shall we say, prominent. Which means, what we modern readers consider to be pejorative terms ran rampant. Some of those terms were intentionally offensive in 1840’s South Carolina, of course. But I think we can all agree those words and phrases are more widely offensive now.

What am I to do?

As an author of historical fiction, I owe it to my readers to be as authentic as I can. That’s what my readers expect. But I also cringe at the thought of using certain words in my prose.

Do I sacrifice potential emotional resonance for the sake of avoiding offense? Do I eschew contemporary social laws to give my story authentic flair? What is the better part of valor?

I have made a decision. I’m not sure it’s the right one. I’m not sure if it’s the higher or lower road. But I’m just not going to include words that may—in any way—label me.

I do know that I’m still uncomfortable and every time I deliberately, and often glaringly, avoid a particular word, I squirm.

What do you think? What should I do, here? Have you run into these problems, or am I the only one struggling with this issue?



Brig Berthold

I am a father, widower, and veteran. Co-host of the Baseball Together podcast and author of Sidekick: A Pregnancy Field Guide for Dudes.