After participating on a panel with three other authors (Karen Cantwell, Scott Nicholson, and Michael J. Sullivan) recently, the topic of profanity came up. We’d just finished lunch at a family restaurant and it was only later that I wondered what the teenage waiters and nearby patrons thought when one of us said, “The chapter of my first book ended with ‘Fuck!’ and it really turned a lot of people off, so I took it out in the next edition.”
And that was the tame stuff.
Seven Dirty Words…among others
The use of profanity is one of those things that makes it into almost every writers’ guide as a one-paragraph warning mid-way through the section on Style or Word Usage. Some people can use it effectively, the guideline usually goes, and some writers can’t. Whichever one you are, use sparingly and with caution.
The advice is usually sound. Writers who are just starting out–especially in genres where violence or shock is the idea–tend to overuse profanity as a prop to shore up a lack of tension, an absence of real conflict, or plain bad dialogue.
Even veterans might forget that vulgarisms are a class of words that carry actual power. They have the ability to shock, impress, and repulse the reader far beyond the ability of other single words. Overused, they become invisible, ho-hum fillers taking up space between real words that mean something.
I wanted to put up three quick points that came up during the conversation that I think both readers and writers will find interesting.
1. If you don’t feel it, don’t do it
This was more of an outgrowth on writing erotica (maybe another post someday), but the premise seemed to hold for everyone: if you don’t actually “hear” your character using curse words in your mind’s… uh, ear, if you don’t really feel it, then you’ve got your answer: don’t do it.
You yourself might swear like a sailor, but when you inhabit your characters’ voice, you’ll have to fully possess them to decide whether they would swear or how. Do they use every word in the book? Only “light” curse words? Is it humorous or deadly serious?
We noted, too, that often you just don’t need that “special” word. This isn’t a Puritan instinct at work; it’s simply that good writing can often convey the scene just fine without catching the page on fire. As a writing exercise–not a purity purge–try editing your profanities out and see how much your writing has lost. If the answer is “not much,” cut it. It might not only be stronger, there may be hidden benefits (see the next point, below).
Related to this: if you use profanities, consider a variation on the rather tired stable of f-bombs and other four-letter words. Consider that in Resevoir Dogs–a film that might’ve set a record for profanity–Mr. Blonde’s unexpected use of “ass hat” stands out.
2. Consider your audience
All three other writers in the group had heard from fans about their use of profanity, either in a positive light (for not using profanity, or at least not recognizable profanity) or a negative light (one or two uses of a “heavy” word sometimes caused readers to drop that author all-together).
In one case, one of the writers had–quite unintentionally–picked up a sizable Christian following, simply because the writing was essentially rated PG. The same writer also noted that they’d had more than one reader say that their whole family had become fans, because they could all read and pass around all the books without feeling self-conscious or (the parents) feeling nervous about corrupting their kids.
While this might not be an aspiration of yours, a little bit of editing might give you an entirely new audience…one that will drop you–not just your book, but you as a writer–like a hot rock if you insist on using f-bombs without end.
Another writer said that fans of the first book had written and asked for a lighter touch. When the next book came out with fewer f-bombs and s-bombs, sales went up. New releases now have fewer profanities in them and readers have responded by buying.
3. Consider your genre
Those of us who had written fantasy all agreed that 21stcentury American cuss words sound particularly stupid coming out of the mouths of what are ostensibly medieval European characters.
One of the first rules of fiction writing we all learn: don’t take your reader out of the story. And few things do that more reliably than your knights and wizards talking like they’re New York City cab drivers coming off a double.
This isn’t to say you can’t have your epic fantasy characters speak with the same sentiments or emotional impact as a potty-mouthed modern day hero. Just be wary of using anachronistic speech. Invent your own or, as one author did, borrow another culture’s swear words. Used intentionally and intelligently, the prose should flow and you may even give your story more adult realism.
Note, too, that we’re not just talking fantasy, science fiction, or ancient historical fiction. Many curse words we use today weren’t in use in the American West or were regional or weren’t in use at all in other countries in the 19th century.
Profanity is an integral part of both real and fictional speech, and it certainly has its place in serious fiction. But that place isn’t necessarily in every sentence, plot, and book. Profanity should be examined in the same light as any other tough word choice you make. Do your research, consider your audience, and think about your genre before peppering your books with four letter words.
Otherwise, you’ll end up sounding like a f$%#ing idiot.