When to Shut the #$*% Up!

Swear words or profanities are used in almost all pieces of literature today. My question is about the usage of them. Sometimes you might read or write a piece of work where the main character’s bad language becomes somewhat prolific.  General advice has always been to stay clear of using such words but to avoid them might not be true to the characters. And here lies my dilemma.

‘Well *@%~ me, Bill! What can I say?’

This depends on who your readers are. I’ve used swear words/profanities, at some points in both of my novels, but I’d never dream of using them if I was writing a children’s book or a book of religion.

Times and trends change, but I still believe the mainstream market doesn’t like lots of swearing – it’s all depends on whether it’s appropriate to the tale. I think the market plays a huge part here in dictating what type of characters you create. This being so, the problem should solve itself. Some characters won’t ring true unless they swear and the market will then accept the swearing in this case.

But you still run the risk of offending someone as you cannot always be sure just who is going to read your piece! My mother was very proud and pleased when I handed her a paperback copy of The Assassins’ Village, but she did admit that the bad language employed by my heroine when she was under duress made it difficult for her to read.

There are ways round this. I wouldn’t substitute a harsh swear word for something  banal like “oh darn it”, I’d be more inclined to say , “she swore violently”. There again you could show the character’s anger by their action or thoughts –or by simple omission – describing a look or a body action.

It comes down to genre, potential readership and the setting and era of your storyline, using realism as the key and being aware that readers can be turned off by bad language, especially if it’s too gratuitous.

I believe I’m a moderate profanity user. I occasionally use the F word, different assorted B words but never the C word, which is the one word most readers find offensive. And hopefully I’m always within the context of my dialogue.  Remember less is often more.

Yes I curse when I drop something heavy on my foot, or I miss the last train home, but it is tedious to read a constant F word throughout a book.

So research your market! What do you think?

Good reading to you all and thank you for your interest.

Faith Mortimer

Faith will be a regular contributor to the Independent Writers Association.

You can also read other blog posts by Faith on her website http://www.faithmortimersauthor.com

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5 thoughts on “When to Shut the #$*% Up!

  1. S.L. Pierce

    Great Post. I agree – more is not better. I remember as a kid I heard my dad swear twice in my life. It was very effective because if we had driven him to swear we knew we were in for it. If he swore all the time it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

  2. Pamela Beason

    I’m not much of a swearer myself and I think using the F* work for everything: F* this, you *f-e, the f*g problem, etc often substitutes for real vocabulary, which would probably be more descriptive and memorable. So my characters only use the s* word when they are under duress, although some of the real s*head characters in my book use the f* word because they would in real life. My problem is all the references like Thank God and Sweet Jesus, Good Lord, Oh my god, etc. I’m always wondering how many readers consider that “praying” and how many consider it blasphemy.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  3. Isobel

    Thank you for a thought provoking post, Faith.

    My characters often swear, and I frequently don’t dialogue it fully, preferring to use the “He swore.” route, or catalogue it through another character’s reaction. The trick is finding that balance.

  4. Marty (Fictitious Musings)

    This is a very timely post because I’ve been wondering how far is too far because of the story I’m working on. It takes place in a prison, where dang and darn are not part of everyday vocabulary so I’m trying to find a balance between realistic and excessive.

  5. Lisette Brodey

    Hi Faith:

    Great blog!

    I’ve published two books and will be publishing a third in the next few months. My first-published (second-written) novel has the most profanity. As you mentioned, some of the characters simply would not ring true without those words. That said, prior to publishing it, I went through the ms. and took out every word that I didn’t think I absolutely had to use.

    In my other novel, which wasn’t written as a YA novel but falls into that genre, I was even more careful. There are far, far fewer expletives, yet I could not take them out completely. Situations and characters demanded them.

    In my third novel, a women’s fiction book that is more lighthearted, I felt that the use of expletives was too harsh for the style. So, I’m using only #$%@ing symbols! 🙂

    Each novel has its own unique requirements. I try to choose all of my words intelligently. Gratuitous cursing isn’t my thing but being true to my characters and to my work is number one.

    Best always,
    Lisette

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