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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Holy $#@*--On the Use of Profanity

Hello hello!

Ah, profanity. As a reader, I enjoy it for cases of verisimilitude and emphasis. As a writer, well, I love it. I’ve been dinged for it in reviews. As an editor, I long for more of it. So why do so many writers shy away from it?

The most common argument I hear against profanity is that it’s crude and coarse language. However, profanity has little to no correlation with socioeconomic status or personal refinement in most cases. Sure, there are people who use it as a substitution in their vocabulary, but it’s not as common as you’d think. Instead, aggressive, type-A, ambitious people with strong emotions tend to favour it. It’s also common in cases of injury or anger, as swearing actually has analgesic (pain-reducing) effects.
So why don’t people use it in books? While a cozy mystery or a Young Adult novel might not be the best place to drop some F-bombs, I am going to go out on a limb and say that other New Adult or Adult-oriented fiction (ie, most of the market) needs and requires cussing for verisimilitude. Even Jane Austen and the Brontes mentioned their characters swearing, and sometimes showed it--with censoring, sure, but it still happened. Some authors ‘aren’t comfortable’ with ‘inappropriate’ language, but considering that beheading a character or sexual assault flies easily with some of the same authors, I’m left scratching my head. Swearing makes up approximately 0.3-0.7% of language, and it’s a small but crucial portion.

So, when should characters swear? 

Strong emotions are a great time for this. Crying, bouts of anger, an argument, physical pain—all of these are prime times for some cussin’. If your characters are using exclamation marks—as they should, if they’re shouting—they can do some swearin’. Some people even swear when they’re happy—a joyous ‘F$#@ yeah! I won the lottery!” hardly goes amiss. As well, characters who are in the military, known for bluntness, or are teenagers, will likely do some cursing.

I am going to be blunt.  If you, as an author, are uncomfortable with swearwords, you need to get over it. That goes for readers, too, but this is a column about writing, so it’s authors I want to address. You don’t have to pepper your text with F-bombs in order to get the right feel, but a carefully-placed swearword can make a lot of difference. If you’re uncomfortable with swearing, practice saying it out loud (in private if you must) and try to write dialogue with lots of cussing in it to acclimatize yourself. Why do you have to? Because you’re trying to write a good story, and a lack of cursing can result in utter silliness.

“Ow! Ding dang dong diddly!” shouted Claudia. The insane clown grinned and continued to saw away at her toes. “Ow! Shucks and tarnation! That hurts!”

Your characters shouldn't sound like Ned Flanders. Even Ned would cuss if his toes were being sawed off by an insane clown. Consider this revision.

“Ow! Fucking shit! Get the fuck off!” Claudia yelled. The insane clown grinned and kept sawing at her toes. “Fucking--go to hell!”

This is how most of us would respond in the same circumstances, though probably with more screaming. Sure, these words can be seen as ugly, but they’re a natural part of language. Avoiding swearwords altogether is like avoiding the letter ‘z’—it might be rare, but you WILL stumble across it eventually, and having a slice of pi—a would be very odd.

I’ve also heard the argument that authors in the classical era didn’t swear. Anyone who’s read classical plays, Shakespeare, or even Jane Austen can easily refute that. ‘Damn’ used to be considered as powerful as ‘f$%#’, and now it’s used in kids’ movies. That’s right—the logical corollary is that even Jane Austen dropped a few ‘D-bombs’ once in a while, even if they were often censored.  Arguably, you could also say that just because classical authors did it, doesn’t mean it’s right.

So, my final words are these—whatever your religious or moral persuasion, in writing, it simply won’t do to avoid cursing completely unless you're writing children's books. You can make up the occasional curse-word as a substitute, but make sure you use it the same way as traditional curses, swears, and oaths. Don’t make your characters talk like Sunday-school teachers unless they are, and even then—I’m pretty sure every Sunday-school teacher has hit their thumb with a hammer at some point in life. 

What are some of the most creative swear words and phrases you've heard? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. Oh, I agree with you so very, very much. I wrote a post about this, too, having been dinged for using fuck and its derivatives. Folks, if you don't like cuss words, please don't read my books. Because "coarse" language is real and honest, and is used by my characters for a variety of reasons not connected with intending to burnt out sensitive eyeballs.

    And as for words that have changed over time , "bugger" is seen as a perfectly admissible mild swear. When you think about what it really meant... hey ho.

  2. And I disagree. I don't consider myself a prude. I see how swearing can be used effectively, and I'm not adverse to seeing it used by others. But as a writer, I've made it a habit to completely avoid having profanity in my stories, and I plan to continue doing so. I simply prefer to not use it.

    There's a couple of YouTubers I watch, one of whom almost never curses, and the other whom avoids it entirely. And both of them are still able to produce consistently excellent videos. I know a YouTube video isn't the same as a book, but still. And even in the book department, "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins (if I remember correctly) doesn't have any profanity whatsoever, and that's one of my all-time favourite books.

    Ultimately, I feel it depends on the author, and the style they're going for. But I don't think profanity is by any means an inescapable requirement.


As always, be excellent unto others, and don't be a dick.