Recently a conversation sparked up in the Fantasy Writers and Readers group. As with any such group, many people hold strong personal convictions about swearing and the use of bad words when writing fiction. Suffice it to say, as I am a writer who tends to get a little naughty now and again, the conversation inspired me to investigate my own use of such words.
The Suspension of Belief.
For many people, they can believe in literary worlds where bad words don’t exist. Tolkien and other masters of the genre proved that believable worlds without swearing are possible. But these are a certain kind of worlds, innocent in a way, but what if the world you create isn’t innocent? In an age where emphasis is placed on realism and grittiness, words and action need to match certain situations. If you have adult themes, there ought to be adult language or variants thereof (Many people have made up swear words for their world to great effect, some not so much). Our writing isn’t just dialogue, it’s thoughts, and human thoughts are dirty.
TV as a Guide to the Believable.
Consider, for the moment, a series like The Walking Dead. Does it suffer from a lack of profanity? Yes. Because people don’t say “crap” in a zombie apocalypse — they say much worse. Society has crumbled. Morality has been turned upside down. But certain words just don’t exist in The Walking Dead, and the lack of profanity sometimes takes the viewer out of belief when the crap hits the fan. American TV censorship, whether nudity or language, directly affects the believability of its shows. Why do you think so many adults are flocking to HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, etc? Many British shows are quite liberal in their use of profanity and likewise build the strongest, flawed, and most relatable characters in existence (Ever watch Misfits? Being Human?). Dare we wonder what Game of Thrones would be like without the swearing?
Does this Mean We Should be Lacing our Works with Profanity?
In the same vein of thought about how a lack of profanity can take away from a story, excessive profanity can also be detrimental. The key is that the lack of profanity, or excessive presence of profanity, cannot seem forced either way. There are many instances where I’ll remove a bad word during the editing process. Each word, profane or other, has to hold up the words around it.
It’s Really the Character’s Choice, Anyway.
The reason some of my work has profanity and some does not is simple: Each character is unique; has a unique voice, and a unique vocabulary. I happen to write a lot of pessimistic characters. Pessimists, unless language is the focus of their pessimism, often think in crude terms and tend to speak their mind in profane manners. So yes, don’t have a talking gopher cuss out the friendly rabbit in a book for children. Use lesser profane words if you’d like to take it up a notch to the YA arena. If you are at the adult level and you write about a farmer whose family is slaughter by a rich tax collector, and we follow said farmer throughout a trilogy of books before he finally takes his revenge, it just might take away from the story if your character runs the villain through with a sword and says “Take that, you evil man!” But maybe your farmer is just a nice guy with a strong code of conduct, I get it. But then so is everyone else he comes across? You, the writer, are truly a lucky person if you’ve spent a lifetime away from loose-lipped friends and angry conflict. Profanity happens. At some point, it has to.
I understand that many people won’t use profanity because they do not want to alienate their readership. That’s fine. But that is not a choice made toward perfecting your art. It’s a choice made toward business and market. Your story has now been handicapped before it began, and may never recover. Sometimes stories are meant to stay clean. Sometimes not. Just because you are a childrens’ author doesn’t mean you can’t exercise your other self (no one is saying it needs to see the light of day). Because writing is a compulsion, we all know there are drawbacks to suppressing what we’d like to say.
Editor’s Note: I actual changed “crap hits the fan” to “sh*t hits the fan” while editing because I felt “crap” didn’t have the same effect. But then I found out from Will that was the point. Well played.
This blog post was written as part of a Fantasy Writers and Readers discussion. Please contact me for an invite if you are an avid fantasy writer and/or reader and would like to participate in this closed Facebook group.