Friday, June 5, 2015

Keeping it Classy: When is it OK to Use Profanity in Your Fiction Writing?

It is an indisputable fact of life that people eat by placing food in their mouths, chewing, and swallowing. It is also a truth that dogs have four legs and that drinking ocean water is a bad idea. The earth is round (presumably so that stupid people can’t fall off of its edge), wars result in death, and the pockets on women’s jeans are always far too small.

It is also a fact that almost everyone has uttered what society has deemed to be a ‘bad word’ at some point in their life.

The fact that this is a fact does not, in fact, help writers answer a question we have struggled with for quite some time: when is it okay to use swear words in novels?

The answer?

I do not have one. I do have many ideas. Ideas about pointers, rules of thumbs, do’s and don’ts, tips, and things to remember when using strong language in fiction. Keep in mind that I am talking about YA fiction or any kind of fiction that is meant to be enjoyed by all age groups excluding children (children’s stories should never have curse words in them, though hopefully you already knew that). So here we go:

Rule of thumb: Don’t do it. If that means cleaning your character’s mouths out with soap (or, perhaps, your own mouth), then so be it. Avoid them like they’re…well, like they’re bad, because technically they are.

Exceptions to this rule of thumb:
  • When you use them in moments of tension. A king with a speech impediment that has to address an entire nation and is so stressed that he can only think of four-letter words. A hand grenade rolls around the corner and a bad word slips out. A man’s wife jumps out of a window 30+ floors up and there’s nothing he can do about it except scream and curse. You get the picture. These are all understandable and, to some extent, acceptable. However, they should not be done too often. Then it becomes a lame way to convey tension without using the millions of other words we writers are supposed to be good at using. 
  • When you use it to reflect a character's personality. It is possible to pull this off while staying 'classy' by using mild swear words, very infrequently, in moments of tension, and only when it fits the character. J.K. Rowling did a great job of this with Ron. One of the ways she made him look like your average goof-ball of a teenaged boy was to give him his trademark "bloody hell" exclamation. Rooster Cogburn from True Grit is another good example of this technique. His use of language matched his rough and brutal personality. It also worked to set him apart from his more scrupulous partner Mattie, as well as from the other US Marshals. However, I do need to say that there are a lot of awesome character tags to pull from, and cursing shouldn't be your go to.
  • When you use them in moments of justifiable anger. I know some people may disagree with me, but there are certain circumstances that allow the use of strong language. In fact, sometimes it can make a scene better. Before you leave me curse-free hate comments telling me I’m wrong, let me point out some instances where this is true:
    • Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, bleeding to death and determined to avenge the death of his father: “I want my father back, you son of a -----!" 
    • Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, finally giving Scarlett what she has coming to her: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a ----."
    • And, my and my brother’s personal favorite, Papillon from Papillon, telling off the entire world for trying to ruin his life: “I’m still here, you --------!" 
These are all characters who we see repeatedly put through not-so-great situations. And so, when they finally decide that they aren’t going to take it anymore, well, we stand up and cheer. At least I do. I see no problem with characters having a moment where they snap. It's believable and relatable. But if you do this more than once or twice, it becomes a cheap attempt to add umph to a scene, so don’t do it.

Pointer: Keep your audience in mind. For example, this is the second time I have written this post. Why the second, you ask? Well, the first time I was rolling along just great. I had gotten two brilliant and funny pages (which I must say were more brilliant and funny than the ones you are reading right now), Pandora was playing the perfect kind of music, the words were flowing, and I was having an insane amount of fun. And then, without warning, my computer died. Once I got it plugged in and turned back on, I found that all that was left of my beautiful blog post was half of my opening sentence. So I took the most logical course of action that I could think of:  I clenched my fists and swore.  I will not tell you exactly what words I used because I know my audience and I know that most of you come here expecting to get clean (if not cynical and sarcastic) pieces of writing. So that is what I try to give you. The same should go for you when you use profanity in your novels.

Rule of thumb: If you think you shouldn’t or aren’t sure, then don’t. Don’t use for a ‘shock and awe’ effect. Do NOT use simply because you want to show your independence.

Exceptions to this rule of thumb: Absolutely none.

Pointer: remember that cursing is ‘louder’ on paper than in ‘real life.’ I’m not sure how this is the case, but it’s true: curse words stand out much more when you read them. That’s why they are so easily overused, so be careful.

Rule of thumb: Vulgar or obscene language should never be used.

Exception to this rule of thumb: Some may argue that it’s alright for ‘bad guys’ to make obscene comments since they’re supposed to act badly. I, for one, think that this is not a good idea. Certain terms are derogatory, boorish, and best left alone. Once again, if you need bad language to up the ante in your story, there is something wrong with the way you write.

Pointer: Remember that making bad language funny is harder to pull off than you may think. I’ve seen a lot of books and movies try to making cursing funny. About 80% of them fail miserably, and about 79% of them fail in a way that makes the beholder wince. About 19% of people are able to get it right, but I’m pretty sure they all work for Marvel. Think Rocket’s ‘standing in a circle’ line and the ongoing ‘language’ banter in Age of Ultron. If you know for certain that you fall into the remaining 1% that can get it right, then go for it. If not, please spare us all and don’t even go there.

Bonus tip: Your character should not curse just to make your dialogue realistic. Lots of people use foul language. I get it. However, that does not make it a legitimate reason to put curse words into your dialogue. For example, one of the first things we learn as writers is to avoid using all of the “waffling” words in dialogue: ums, errs, hms, likes, wells, uhuhs. Sure, people use them all the time in real life. But, in written dialogue, they are annoying and they slow things down. The same goes for cursing. Maybe people do talk that way, but that doesn’t mean you have to use bad words in your dialogue. You can, but you don't have to, and you shouldn't do it at the price of irritating your target audience. There are many other better ways to make your dialogue lifelike.

Finding a good balance can be very difficult, I know. Just ask yourself: Is it necessary? Does it make it better? And, most importantly: how am I going to feel when [insert name of a person you respect and want to make proud] reads this?

And, when all else fails and you simply can’t figure out what to do, bang your head against a wall and curse. Oh, wait. On second thought, maybe that’s not such a good idea….

In case you’re wondering, which you probably aren't, I do not use profanity in my books or short stories. Stylistically, I find them unnecessary. Ethically, I don’t see how they would help my goal of bringing entertaining and clean fiction to teenagers.

What about you? What tips or rules do you use when using profanity in your writing…or do you just avoid it altogether? From a purely artistic point of view, what do you think of using strong language in fiction? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  1. Nice! I agree, I hate it when I read vulgar language in a book. It's just not necessary. However, there have been times where it felt appropriate. Good job!

    1. Exactly. Thanks for the comment, Caroline! Glad you enjoyed this post.

  2. *coughs* I've never said a bad word, though I do know them, unfortunately.

    I don't put language in my books because, quite simply, I don't want it in my head or in the heads of my readers.

    For the first fifteen years of my life, every eight or so months when we watched The Princess Bride, the television would be muted on that line. As a part of being human in a fallen world, most everyone has the tendency to get swear words stuck in their heads - the very fact that they know they shouldn't be thinking of them repeatedly pulls the word to the forefront of a person's mind.

    While I don't always despise a book when it has an occasional swear word in it (and indeed, read several that do have cursing in it, and watch a television show on occasion in which characters swear with words "of or pertaining to eternal punishment," as my family likes to say), I've yet to find a soap that can scrub my brain clean... so until I do, I like to keep from using language in my novels.

    1. I like your philosophy. It's always cool to hear about writers who make a conscious effort to keep their writing clean. And I laughed out loud when I read your 'of or pertaining to eternal punishment' line. I'm going to start calling it that. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Happy writing!

  3. Hm. In principle I agree with you, but consider the case in which you're writing a character from the wrong side of the tracks. This guy would be someone who was born in a filthy environment , grew up there and never knew anything else. He's the kind of character who would curse. That said, I'm not particularly partial to cursing. It's ugly and, yes, most of the time absolutely unnecessary. Another great post, Hannah :) xx

    1. Good point! It varies so much from writer to writer. It honestly just depends on what genre you are writing, what kind of characters are in it, and who your target audience is.

  4. I grew up in a curse-friendly family, had curse-friendly friends ("no one can swears as bad as loggers or truckers unless that person is a logging truck driver's daughter" - a friend of mine's words), and even though I knew it was wrong, I justified my own bad language until I started student-teaching at the age of 24. Then, I decided it was unprofessional to swear in front of my students - but I couldn't seem to cut it out just when I was at work so I had to cut it out completely. After a year, I realized that my relationship with God was stronger, my relationships with people were friendlier, and my outlook on life was brighter. So, now, I try to keep swear words out of my life.

    However, I agree that there are moments- small moments - when an occasional usage is acceptable in fiction writing - to establish a character, or to use in an extreme situation (we never heard Mrs. Weasley swear until that showdown and same with Inigo Montoya). I have used a few mild curse words in those instances (usually just he--, da--, and variations - which some would say isn't swearing) just to get the idea across that those particular characters swear. I even started a short story with a usage like that, to let the reader know right off the start the MC used that kind of language and it was a gritty story - a kind of warning: danger and grit ahead! Then, after that I didn't use any language at all but referenced another character "cursing and stomping his feet." I figured that was enough. I don't want to get those words stuck in my readers heads as they were stuck in my head for so many years.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I like the instances you chose and the examples!

    1. Wow. It's so cool to hear about the motivation behind your writing style! I really admire that you saw something wrong with the current way you were doing things, set out to fix the problem, and then kept at it until it was gone. It's nice to read about writers who commit themselves to keeping their pages clean for their readers.
      I like your idea of using mild curse words at the start to make a point, and then reverting to only alluding to swearing. That's a great idea! Thanks for the neat comment. I'm glad you enjoyed this post!

  5. I stopped cursing as a teacher. I've never been big into cursing and the adage that cursing meant you had a lack of vocabulary became more apparent as I have aged. Frankly, cursing is used as a substitute for being able to verbalize your emotions.
    As a writer, you short shrift your characters when you give curse words versus what they are feeling or doing. I don't find comedians who curse a lot in their routine as funny as the laugh track that accompanies them.
    The last point about characters is that cursing crosses all social classes. Just because someone is poor or uneducated does not mean they curse. I feel the downtrodden get enough knocks without people educated in human nature enriching the stereotype. My mother punished us in the sixties for racial comments as cursing.

    1. Good point about cursing crossing all social classes. It is rather annoying when there are books where only the poverty-stricken characters curse. Gives the story a very unbalanced feel.

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  7. Awesome post, great point.
    I can agree but, for me, I choose the path of; if it feels right, just go with it.
    You can view my work here and tell me what you think.
    There are ways to stitch profanity into the quilt of writing.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! And you are completely correct to choose what feels right. The rules for using profanity often change depending on the writer, the genre, and the audience. Thanks for the comment!

  8. I understand that a lot of people that don't care for profanity, but I don't really mind it. For me it really depends on the character. I have a WIP where a character cusses a lot to make people believe he's a 'bad boy' and one that cusses once the whole story when she's freaking out. If I wrote for high school or something I'd maybe do it once or twice, but for college age and older adults it has to fit each character.

    1. Exactly. Your target audience is a bit older, so cursing can be handled differently. As long as you feel comfortable with it and know that your audience will to, then it should be good. I like the idea of a character who cusses to make people think he's a bad boy. Cool tag.

  9. I find, in my own writing, if I have a character that I feel would swear if I kept them in character, I usually revert to the "he cursed under his breath" or something like that. Then everyone gets the idea, my character gets to be him or herself, and no virgin ears are spoiled. If I REALLY feel like there needs to be a swear in a piece of dialogue. h--- and d--- are as far as I go. Since I never use them otherwise, the dramatic effect is the same.

  10. "the pockets on women’s jeans are always far too small." Amen to that, sister. Glad I'm not the only one to notice this.

    The pointers you have are good. Very helpful. I've just finished a first draft of a novel and two of the characters have used bad language. I let it go at first because it's the first draft, but I've been seriously considering weather or not it needs to be removed. You've convinced me that it does. I think I was using it as a lazy characterization tool.

    1. Glad this post was able to prod you to examine your writing a bit more. Go you! May the pockets on your jeans always be large enough. =)

  11. Super blog post, Hannah! Thoughtful. And that funny intro!

    But I LOVE cussing. And I'll keep cussing in fiction, blog posts, and everyday life. To me, curse words are about as spicy as black pepper. But I know, for some folks, pepper burns. Those people probably shouldn't eat in my kitchen...or read my blog posts <3

  12. This was great. Sometimes it is necessary for the story, but I agree, the over use can clog up the story.

  13. I feel like some of the commenters here were waaaay too sheltered growing up, so they don't really see the real world for what it is. If you can't handle hearing swear words, maybe you should exist in a tiny noise-cancelling bubble.

    However, I use a lot of swear words in real life, online, and in writing. I don't do it to make a point or be edgy. I do it because it's natural. If my readers can't handle that, they can go find some one else to read.

    1. I agree with your second paragraph. However, that concept goes both ways: If a writer wants to swear in their writing, online, and in real life, that's fine. They'll collect a certain audience and anybody who doesn't like it can go elsewhere.

      However, it's important to remember that, if a writer wants to not swear in writing, online, or in real life, they should be able to do so without judgement. Maybe they see the world differently and have a "sheltered" viewpoint. But that's totally fine and nothing to be ashamed of.

  14. Loved this post. I had to read it because of the title "Keeping it Classy"... I laughed. I grew up in a home where there was no cursing, knew the words that we were not to say due to Cowboy Action Shooting (where we as kids would politely ask people not to curse in front of us, and they generally complied willingly), we had a curse blocker on our TV for movies. In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories was watching the movie Silverado (Danny Glover, Scott Glenn and company)... and someone saying "You'd better watch your *** or it's gonna get shot off"... and the curse blocker obligingly filling in TOE as the word choice.

    Then life happened. I work in EMS and Fire, and I have since I was 18. Foul language is like breathing, sleeping and drinking water to many people. I agree with the comment above talking about how words STICK in your brain... the patterns of speech and so forth do stick in mine, especially since I am a language person.

    I've fought my battle with cursing/not cursing and words that I'm not proud of have escaped. It isn't something that happens often, and I want to keep it that way.

    With writing, I grew up reading Perry Mason mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner, and WOW, the language is believable and rough. I used to read with a pen, blessings of my mom. (And I may or may not have blacked out a word or two in a library book because I forgot they weren't MY books........ but I can neither confirm or deny that.)

    Anyway. My method of dealing with cursing in my writing is to state that XYZ character "cursed fluently and eloquently, with terms involving reproduction and fecal matter" or something of that nature. It would have to be character specific, and it would have to be right.

    Thanks again for a fun and well done post!

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Britt! I loved hearing about your curse blocker. Some of those programs have hilarious "curse substitution" words. =)
      I like your method of dealing with cursing. It sounds extremely classy and something a person might read in a British novel. Love it. =)

  15. I'm looser with swearing in first drafts, so I don't interrupt the flow of the story. There have been moments where I knew a character would say a word I didn't want to type, and then we kind of came to a standstill, but I usually either replace it or dash it out. Then I can decide what to do in editing.

    One of my pet peeves is when people use "dumbed down" swear words for a character whom I know would not use them. I understand keeping it clean -- just say "she cursed" or something like that! (Britt G's got it.) :)

    TL;DR Characterization first. Figure out appropriateness in the next draft. :)

    1. I really like this method, Faith! I can see how it would help you stay in the groove while writing, but then allow you to go back later and decide whether its necessary.

      And I agree about the dumbed down swear words. Either do or don't. There is no try. =D

      Thank you for the brilliant and helpful comment!

  16. Ok, I know I'm late to this conversation, but having read it I just have to make a comment (or two). Firstly, great post. I hate (hatehatehatehate) bad language in novels, even in ones aimed at adults. I hate it when authors just stick in bad language to show how real and gritty their character/ plot is. I once read a book I would have loved, if it hadn't been for the terrible language. The only reason I finished it was because I won it in a Goodreads giveaway and wanted to be fair to the author. I gave my honest feedback and then binned the book because I wasn't going to pass it on to someone else with my mark of approval.

    I am also hating the new trend for YA authors to slip in more swear words, and for the publishers to allow it. I love YA books (even though I am well past the point of being considered YA myself) and one of the reasons which attracted me to them was because of the lack of bad language. But in the last few years, one or two authors slipped them in and now it seems everyone is doing it. I've read (and heard) people say that teenagers swear, so why not have it in books for them (after all it's suppressing freedom of expression, right?). Well of course, some teenagers swear, but I don't believe that is the majority. The problem is when books & films have so much of it in (which can go with other dodgy content) that it has forced it to become normal and acceptable. It's not. I don't swear, I wince when I hear it in the street and I will give someone a verbal smack (without swearing!) to anyone -including strangers- swear in ear shot of my children.

    Next is that there is a great divide on the 'lesser' words considered swearing between the UK (where I'm from) and the US. Please no one get upset with my examples here, these are more bad words rather than full on swear words in the UK- bitch or cow (meaning a horrible female), damn/ dammit (not common but is a more emphatic way of saying rats! rather than wanting someone to be consigned to hell), crap - completely acceptable for teenagers or adults to use in informal settings (i.e. not at church!) to indicate that something is rubbish. Hell or hellish, admittedly go to hell would be a rather rude thing to say to someone, however hellish simply means something truly awful. Now, if I read any of these in a novel I have to admit I wouldn't blink at them.

    Some of the bad words rather than swear words for the US that I read often in YA novels which are swear words in the UK: prick (a slang term for the male genitalia, equivalent in severity to d***). Piss/ pissing- slang for having a wee, but pissed off is a swearing term to indicate someone is very angry (I've read the US version of that as pissy), in any form, absolute no-no. Fanny. Oh how I cringe. Fanny in the US (as I'm reliably informed) is an innocent way parents/ children might refer to said child's bottom. PLEASE do not use this for UK intended audiences. it's not innocent here. It is a slang term for the female genitalia. It is not as bad as the c*** term meaning the same, but it is still not acceptable.

    Lastly, I hate that globally, the name of God and also the Saviour are common and acceptable words to use by anyone of most western cultures. I am an active Christian and the 'OMG' and all the rest that goes with it offends me greatly. Using God's name to swear certainly comes under the don't take the name of God in vain umbrella, and I really get annoyed when authors spread it liberally in their character's speech.

    When people use bad language it shows a lack in vocabulary and also control. Authors have the time (and intelligence?) to think of different ways of expressing intense feelings. On the rare occasion a character of mine has sworn, I have expressed it as a muttered curse.

  17. I'm a bit late to the game, but I did want to throw in my two cents.

    First on, top notch, once again Hannah! I think you make entirely valid points and I appreciate that you acknowledge that there are times, when writing for the appropriate audience, that strong language can contribute to a piece.

    As a recommendation for language used for comedic effect, I would suggest looking at Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards series (first being The Lie of Locke Lamora). Although there are many books that make me snicker, I've not encountered a book that makes me laugh out loud so heartily as the creative cursing of the main characters of this series. It is absolutely strong language (not to mention a violent series), and I therefore do not recommend it to anyone that has not graduated high school. That said, Lynch does an excellent job of showing the devil-may-care, irreverent attitude of the jaded and cynical, but highly intelligent Locke Lamora. An in-depth study of his character could be conducted using his choice of language alone.

    That is the book I always point to in response to criticism of any and all use of language in a book. I understand and respect the choice of some readers (and writers) who do wish any contact with cursing. For those of us who are less troubled by the presence of purposeful language, it can be an extraordinarily useful tool, especially when used shrewdly.

  18. This is an excellent post. I like the balance of your view on it.
    I personally try to avoid cursing in my books (I don't enjoy reading it, either, but so long as there isn't incessant cussing or more than one use of the f-bomb (if that) I can skim over it pretty easily), but with my latest book there's one particular instance that I've been battling myself over since I wrote it. I put in a substitute so that I can come back to it in editing and make the final call. It's one of those that fits the character, and he wouldn't use a less harsh word. Since it's the only instance in the whole book, I think it's not entirely inappropriate to go with the cussword, but considering the fact that I've never cussed (in real life or in writing) and try to avoid it, it has me on the fence.

  19. My name is G. V.--yes, HIM again. This post has been hugely refreshing
    to me; it provided me a drink of ice water and an oasis of shade in the burning heat. I thank anyone who has the fortitude to, of course firmly
    but gently, take a stand against something that has nearly imperceptibly managed to sneak itself into being second nature to many
    writers. How a character I would write would deal with a wit's-end situation of anger and desperation makes for me a disconnect akin to setting a calculus problem in front of a first-year algebra student. I hope for something more mature than the often stupid solution of punching another character; judging by the river of muck I see in the reams of pulp books in the used book store shelves, it seems to me that many others have yet to help their characters out of this same quicksand. I have read the majority of the other posts when I selfishly felt that they contained a clue to something I needed to work on, but have dreaded looking at this one simply because of the subject. I can do nothing better, though, than to apologize for not using the second person in my comments; I would gladly rid myself of this burden and be more informal in a less word-sensitive political climate. Being an ant in the middle of a high-traffic area where pedestrians are going both left and right is something I wish on no one.


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