"Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe" ~ Neil Gaiman (A Game of You)



To swear, or not to swear? That is the question.

Take a walk through the mall. Sit at the counter at a sports bar. Visit a high school campus. Flip through the channels on cable television. It is unmistakable -- our culture is becoming increasingly vulgar. Profanity, once used to shock, to make people listen, to shake up the status quo, has become the status quo. People swear... a lot! Does that mean that you have to include cursing in your dialogue to make it sound realistic?

As a writer, language is a tool, nothing more, and certainly nothing less. We use every word to reveal the story behind the story. We use dialogue not just to capture what a person has said, but to convey mood, emotion, intimacy, and conflict. I think that the fact that profanity has become more common place has actually lessened its impact. Cursing has become cliche.

I recently read the book The Wheel of Darkness by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. It was an enjoyable book. Overall, the plot moved along well, the twists were foreseeable but still fun, the characters were believable, and the dialogue was real. The authors used hardly any profanity at all. The only time they used profanity was when The Bad Guy was speaking. Initially, I was taken aback by the sudden use of cursing. But then, I quickly figured out, "OK, this is the bad guy, he swears." In hindsight, though, I can't help but think what a cop out that was! How lazy. Instead of creating a bad guy with depth, revealing his badness subtly, they simply slapped a few F bombs on him.

Avoiding profanity in your writing does two things. First, it broadens your audience. There are still a lot of old fashioned, sensitive people out there (like myself!) who cringe at the occasional curse and discard a book when it is filled with swearing. Profanity is a barrier to the story that we just can't get over.

Second, it challenges you to craft your words more carefully, more thoughtfully, and more creatively, and ultimately more effectively.

Will I ever use profanity in my writings? I've been following a discussion between fellow bloggers Mesina and Melissa. They discussed whether swearing in our writing reflects badly on you as the author, especially if you are a Mom. I've wondered about this, because not only am I a Mom, but I'm a Mormon Mom. But I believe that we reveal ourselves through our words, whether we use profanity or not. If I am a vulgar person, avoiding curses will not hide that fact from my readers. If I am elegant and refined, my writing will reflect it, even if I have a character who is not. If I'm somewhere in between? I cannot avoid the truth of who I am. So, if I reach a point in my story where I feel I absolutely cannot continue in honesty without letting my character swear, I will have to give in.

For another point of view, visit Fiction Groupie here.


Deb said...

One of the key reasons I started reading LDS fiction was because of the bad language and expected graphic sex scenes we get in mainstream books. I so appreciate the clean stories the LDS fiction. Just because the books don't have nasty cursing in them does't mean that they are boring or lack imagination. On the contrary. I've found some of the greatest adventures thanks to our wonderful LDS writers. If I knew I had to endure expletives in order to know the "bad guy", I'd probably pass on that particular book in order to read another. Am I missing something with this kind of attitude? Maybe, but its my time, and its limited therefore valuable.

I would hope you'd think thrice before you give in to using profanity in your writing, but in the end it's every author's free will with how they write.

Donna Hatch said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I write historicals, so finding non-swear words has actually been fun because I can use words that were around in the 1800's. And that helps create that believable Regency feel. If I really need a character to talk like a tough guy, I simply say he swore, or he cursed. That leaves the reader to fill in the blanks, or not, as they wish.
And of all the critics who read and rated my book, not one said, "the dialogue seemed so empty without all my favorite swear words." In fact, several of them (all non-member, I might add) stated that the dialogue was natural and witty. Doesn't seem like anything was missing to me.
And I'd like to add one more thing. It was on a sign I read years ago; Swearing is the sign of a feeble mind attempting to express itself forcibly.

JAMAL said...

Amen to all that! One author I read regularly writes techno-thrillers and is a national bestseller but his novels contain no profanity. There are hardbitten soldiers, and they are portrayed realistically. One way the author gets around this is saying, "The hardbitten soldier cursed"--without actually stooping to the level of inserting the curse word itself. When I finally noticed that was what the author was doing, I laughed for relief and appreciation. It seemed like a good way to handle it to me!

Valerie Ipson said...

I hate swearing in fiction. It really jolts me out of the story which is the opposite of what an author wants.

Mesina said...

Firstly, thank you so much for mentioning my article! Second, I love your take on this subject. Personally, I do swear from time to time on my blog, but not to a point where it's each and every post. It's a personal preference, as from my point of view it creates a realism between me and my readers - most of my readers aren't offended in the slightest.
But it's great to hear the other side, each to their own and I think you've made a great choice. Yours is far more real for you and what your readers would expect and that is what's most important. x

Lisa said...

Hi Shelli! Thanks for your post. I pretty much agree with you all the way.

About whether or not swearing characters reflect on you as a writer, this conflict reminds me of theatre, as I used to be a theatre major at the beginning of college. I decided to quit the major and do something else, and one of the reasons why was because I didn't like performing scenes that used curse words. Some friends would tell me, "Well, it's not really you, it's just what your character would do." I thought about it for awhile, and decided that "No, despite what character I'm playing, it IS me swearing. It's my voice, it's my body. It's ME, and even though I'm pretending to be somebody else, it still feels awful." I feel like writing is the same way. The characters aren't real, they come from the writer's head. The writer is the one who puts the word on the paper and subjects his or her readers to it. Blaming it on a fictional character is just a deceitful tool of the adversary, in my opinion. I like what other people have said about ways to infer that the character uses bad language without actually writing the word in.

Renee said...

I find it difficult to read a book with alot swearing it it...especially vulgar words and anywhere they used God's name. It stops the flow of the book for me...
I like the quote about the feeble mind.....must remember that one.

Tamara said...

As writers, we know our words can be powerful. Cuss words are weak words. I've always thougth if an author uses profanity for realism's sake he or she does so at the expense of the strength of the writing as a whole.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog and for the comment. It definitely is an interesting debate. :) I fall on the liberal side of things, but I guess that's why there are all kinds of books for all kinds of readers!

Pete said...

I have been directed here from a list wherein this discussion was mentioned. Having done some acting myself, I'd like to respond specifically to the actor who ceased to act because of scripted profanity she felt discomfort in delivering.

Unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world and, in drawing attention to conflict and life's imperfections, drama is always going to depict unpleasant realities.

I do not believe it is possible to go on stage and to be 'yourself' performing another character; you must BE the character. If a character uses a great deal of profanity then you must understand that character enough for the profanity to come naturally. It is the same when any character steps beyond the pale of our own moral judgement, as many characters will.

I am, perhaps, one of the most non-violent people I have ever known; but for a while back there I was typecast as a (fairly intelligent thank goodness) thug. To play the part I had to understand why someone might behave in that way and yes, even emphathise with their attitude. You cannot play a role if you are not sympathetic with the character, however unpleasant.

I believe it is much the same with writing. If it is in a character's nature to swear, he or she should swear. If the character is real then the profanity shouldn't jar the reader unless he or she has been hiding in a soundproofed box for several decades. The profanity the reader reads in the book - if it's doing its job properly and suspending the reader's disbelief - should flow as naturally as the profanity he or she hears on the street.

In the end it depends very much on the style of the book and the target audience, but I for one prefer my realism uncensored. If someone is running around with a gun showing a great willingness to shoot people, for example, I don't expect him to mind his p's and q's while doing so. Indeed, I find it more shocking - far more shocking - to read of one individual killing another than to read of him using a bad word while doing it...

Kim said...

I'm reading SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and Hannibal the Cannibal is just freaking me out. No profanity, but he's playing Clarice like a well tuned violin. That's how I want to write. I agree with the article, why not make the characters rich and vibrant like Hannibal without the lazy F bombs? Now back to my book!!!

Alena said...

I was just over on Mesina's blog, and posted about this issue. I plan to write a Buzz soon, and will link to you when I do :)

In my real life, I rarely ever swear, and when I do, it is almost exclusively accidental (we say what we hear). As a Christian, I want to make sure I am using a Biblical standard with my language; how does (or doesn't) swearing fit into that? My biggest issue is consistency and authenticity - if a person believes their language should be free of vulgar expression, shouldn't this include watered-down words? Almost every Christian I know, even extremely conservative ones, use some form of diluted profanity, and don't consider it in the least offensive. And with standard curses becoming almost cultural, where is the line anymore? These are the questions that plague me...