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.
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).