To curse, or not to curse: profanity in fiction

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As literary influencers, as preservers of words, as Guardians of the Language, are writers forbidden—or on the other hand, required—to use profanity?

I could explain my own religious reasons for not swearing (I opt instead for terms like “baloney sandwiches”), but half of you don’t care about that. Because no matter what I believe, it can’t answer the question:

What if one of my characters doesn’t give a flip?

So I’m not going to tell you to never use profanity in your work. And I’m not going to preach at you. But I will advise you to use profanity sparingly—and include purely artistic reasons why.

But before that, we need to understand what swear words are.

“Just words”?

You might think swear words are simply synonyms for other words; synonyms society only considers different.

Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers begs to differ:

Once a word becomes a curse, it loses its original meaning pretty fast. Like I’m not talking about any particular sphincter when I call someone an [bleep]**. It’s almost as if my brain has a different place for storing curse words than it does for storing normal words. Holy [bleep]; it does. Language and linguistics happen in a recently-developed and very complex part of the brain in the left hemisphere. Swearing, on the other hand, happens in the emotional bit, in the limbic system. Swear words are stored and accessed in a completely different way. So next time you think ‘there’s nothing different about swearwords’ – there is. They’re physiologically different for us…You can think of swear words as being stored in our brains as units of emotional expression. Almost like a laugh or a scream or crying. It blurs the line between linguistics and emotion.

Units of emotional expression. Remember that.

 

Here are the reasons you might swear in fiction:

(and, consequently, the reasons to avoid it)

1. That’s the way people really talk

The thing about fictional dialogue is, it’s just an illusion of the real thing. Even when we replace Gs with apostrophes, use double negatives, and add in “um”s and “uh”s, we’re just creating the illusion of accent and bad grammar and stammering. If we actually wrote the way people talk, readers would have a hard time deciphering it. If you’ve ever had to transcribe real human speech, you know what I’m talking about.

So even though you might swear with every other word in real life, it isn’t practical to write dialogue that way. It’s harsher in print, and the repetition clouds the meaning. It’s hard to sift through all the f-bombs to get to the point.

So for clarity’s sake, what you want is to create the illusion of swearing.*

2. There’s no other way to express XYZ

Maybe your character is extremely surprised, distressed, or broken-hearted. If you’re writing about a father watching his daughter slowly decay from cancer, somehow “stupid cancer” just doesn’t cut it when she dies. This is just the kind of situation in which one of those units of emotional expression seems necessary.

It’s also the reason you should minimize—or even eliminate—swear words from the rest of the book.

If your character drops f-bombs in every chapter, when you finally get to the climax, the word is meaningless. You have sucked all the oomph out of it. When you use swear words that often, they cease to be units of emotional expression and instead become filler words—in much the same way some people use the word “literally.”

 

In short, profanity is powerful. But only when used sparingly. If you use it all the time, you’re wasting it.

*Next week, I’ll give some real examples of authors who found clever ways to create the illusion of swearing.

 

** For the record, Hank actually bleeped himself. I recommend watching the entire video (only 4 minutes).

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About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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23 Comments

  1. I had this problem when I first sat down to write my forthcoming novel ‘The Gods, They Feast On Men’, I wrote it not only with the voice of a young man in his twenties, but through my own perspective of trying to use real conversations as a guide to believable dialogue. The problem was, frankly, an over dependance on swear words – their force is diluted through overuse. This was pointed out by my first reader (Thanks Mum!) and now, when I look over that first draft I find it absolutely cringe worthy.

    Use the power of swearing sparingly – or have your reader become immune to it, and not feel its force when you want them to.

  2. The funny thing about cursing is I rarely use It in my normal speech, but will occasionally place it in a story or poem. There are certain words I refuse to use. You won’t ever see the f word and using the lord’s name in vain is something I can’t do. In theory, this should make me realize that no words used as a curse are appropriate (I know that and have been taught that from a biblical point of view), but there are moments where the strength of the regular word isn’t enough. Not necessarily appropriate either way.

    You’re post definitely made me much more thoughtful on the subject. I’d say I’m caught up in literary fervor, but that’s just an excuse and I really shouldn’t use it. Thanks for posting this. :)

    • There are times when you just have to call a spade a spade, as they say. The question is, which synonym for “spade” do you use? Figuratively speaking, I mean. I’m the same as you – some words I won’t say at all, a few gentler ones I’ll use in fiction – but even then, I’m honestly a little on the fence about it.

  3. This is a great post … and an issue that I wrote about too, but for its use in musical theatre (http://drewlanecomposer.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/fk-me-swearing-in-song/). Like the previous reader, the first draft of one of my musicals was full of swearing because I thought it would make it more “real”. Paradoxically, it doesn’t. Because theatre is already a heightened reality, swearing actually becomes defunct and pointless, and a sign of poor (or lazy) writing. I’m guilty of it, so I try and find another way to express myself. Yes, occasionally it can be useful, but like any literary tool, you have to use it sparingly else it becomes a blunt object!

  4. First of all, Hank’s video is awesome, particularly the “Officer Hank” portion at the end :)

    Secondly, thanks for reaffirming this point for me. I recently wrote a novel that is darker than what I tend to write, and it has more swearing. I’ve just started revising it, so I’ll be on the lookout for too many swear words. Also, I tend to think that cursing is a fall back. With the overuse of it in our society, by Hollywood (for seemingly everything), and the music industry, we’ve become desensitized. I love this post because it reminds me to be more mindful of my own thoughts and how I express myself. Thank you!

    • Yes! Hank and his brother John make really interesting, entertaining stuff. I recommend you check out some more of it.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with the term “fall back.” And Hollywood – yes! I often wonder if real people only talk that way because that’s what they see in the movies. I wonder just how much power fiction has over reality.

  5. I recently borrowed a book from the library that had been recommended on someone’s blog. I got past the first few f-bombs, but I felt like I was being attacked the salty language thrown in, and they didn’t add to the story at all. I didn’t finish the book, returned it. The material could have stood on its own, and with a little effort been quite a good read.

    • I know what you mean! I recently bought a book I was really looking forward to reading. Pushed myself to page 50, but I felt like I was wading through waste to look for diamonds. I finally realized I had better things to read. I ended up giving the book away a couple days later.

  6. One of my classmates in a workshop said that too much swearing causes the character to lose credibility. Okay, I’ll fess up: he said my character sounded like he was trying to be cool, rather than believably swearing. I’ve used swear words with an eyedropper ever since.

  7. Great post – I am sometimes guilty of using too much profanity in my characters’ dialogue. And you’re right; using it too much sucks all the “oompf” right out!

  8. All very true! It is easy to forget that the word on a page can have a very different impact than the same word to the ear.

    There is also the issue of words that still have a legitimate use being compromised or even destroyed by their use as swear-words. Bitch and bastard are good examples. Many times have I read the former referring to a female dog and been momentarily jarred from the story, and I hate that! I want to be able to read bitch without having that momentary mental exclamation point fire off in my brain. blarg.

  9. Pingback: 4 clever ways to write around curse words « BeKindRewrite

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