Profanity in fiction

Here is a good, thoughtful post at Kill Zone Blog about the use of blue language in fiction. Note this *is* Kill Zone Blog, which is mainly focused on mysteries and thrillers and so on.

There are different reasons why readers dislike profanity in their fiction. It can colored by religious conviction, personal morals or just plain old taste. Authors are guided by the same impulses. Mark Henshaw, a Mormon crime writer, wrote a blog “Why I Don’t Use Profanity,” saying, “My short answer to the question is: because my mother reads my books. My long answer is a bit more involved.”

Yeah, you all have no idea how much of a fuss my mother made because I included just a half dozen or so cuss words in Black Dog. Sorry, Mom! That’s the way this character talks, especially when he’s upset!

I don’t find it limiting to leave out the cusswords when writing secondary world fantasy. I *have* found it somewhat confining to try to write secondary world fantasy with no swearing at all — not even Gods! or anything like that. (Can you recall which book was written with no swearing, even in secondary world terms? Did you notice at the time?)

It *is* more difficult to try to leave out ALL cusswords from any kind of fiction set in a contemporary or contemporary-ish world. Of course it can be done, and in such a way that the reader doesn’t notice. It takes artistry, but after all, skill with words is kind of what we are hoping for from a writer, yes?

We get everything from no expletives to made-up expletives to the use of expletives under extreme circumstances to a massive heap o’ expletives, and any of those can work depending on the book and the author. I think Tanya Huff pulled off a fake swear word pretty well in her Valor series. Tough to manage military SF without cusswords, but made-up words can look so silly. As I say, I thought she made it work.

I do occasionally wonder whether authors who pour f-bombs into all their stories realize that probably many readers hesitate to buy those books as gifts for their mothers? Of course if the author is okay with limiting their potential readership, that’s fine, but do they realize it? I just wonder. If you hang out mainly with people who exclaim Fuck! every time they drop a spoon on the floor, you probably stop hearing it. But a whole lot of potential readers are going to dislike that in your character’s mouth.

Anyway, this blog post ends with a quote:

Take it away, Kathryn Schultz, in your essay “Ode To a Four-Letter Word:”

Do we need…a justification, beyond the one a writer might mount for any word, i.e., that it works? There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it. Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one.

And I would like to disagree with Schultz just a bit. SOME writers DO employ expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock — or, while we can’t see into their heads, their writing certainly gives that impression. I would like, rather cautiously, to offer an example:

All of Stephen King’s characters sound almost exactly the same, at least in his later books. And one reason they all sound the same is — you can see this coming — because they all cuss the same way, with the same words, under the same circumstances. His bad guys in particular all cuss like Stephen King baddies, but the same is basically true for the good guys as well. And once you, as a reader, notice this, it is grating.

Or at least it was for me, when I noticed it.

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9 thoughts on “Profanity in fiction”

  1. Sometimes it is the best one, agreed.

    It is possible to write without it, though. I think McKillip does. And I can’t remember any in Helen Lowe’s work – not much surely. I just skimmed some sections of Lowe where rougher types were involved and didn’t notice any swearing. Certainly not modern standard language. Which brings me to a pet peeve:
    When one is writing fantasy and historical the swears ought to be different, (urban fantasy excepted). If the world is different, what is sworn by ought to be too. Historical people swore by stuff other than sex, but you wouldn’t know it by most common historical novels.
    In fantasy the author can have a failure of imagination – I remember one who had every character saying ‘cursed’ this and ‘curse’ that. (Literally, it’s just that one word.) When that writer came around for a signing I commented on that, and in later books noticed more variety in swearing. Cefwyn, in CJC’s FORTRESS tends to just say ‘gods’, but he is in an environment with five, apparently unnamed, gods, so ok, I can work with that. He also doesn’t overuse it. I do like his use of ‘pigs’ too.

  2. I picked up The Lies of Locke Lamora in a store, but had to take it off my list after trying about 5 or 10 pages, for this very reason. I was disappointed, having had high expectations for the story.

    I dislike profanity to the point where I have seriously considered whiting out instances of it in books that I own. But I can’t quite bring myself to do so. It feels like vandalism.

    Interestingly, I don’t mind so much when the swearing is not modern, as in some fantasy and historical works.

  3. There is too much @#$%! profanity out there, that’s my opinion, damn it.

    More seriously, writers should think hard before including profanity. Consider the context. If I’m reading some battle-hardened soldier’s account of his war experiences, I wouldn’t be surprised at profanity. (Though now that I think on it, I don’t recall any of Alistair MacLean’s soldiers swearing.)
    But in the wrong context, it can throw me out of the story. I’m now on the second book in the Tearling series, and every time, yes every — single — time– someone swears, it throws me out of the story. It feels wrong. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because most of the characters, hardened warriors or not, don’t swear all the damned time.

    tl;dr — if you don’t include profanity in a story, I’m not likely to notice its absence unless you use unrealistic euphemisms in its stead. But I will notice if you include profanity if it doesn’t fit in with the story.

  4. On the other hand, Harlequin introduced a NASCAR- themed series of romance novels. Apparently, the race car drivers’ behavior was dictated by NASCAR and the authors were told not to have any of the race car drivers swear at any time. I am also told (yes, hearsay evidence) that this series did not do well because readers sorta kinda thought it was too detached from reality.

    FWIW, I noticed the swearing in Black Dog, but it did not throw me out of the story, did not snap my suspension of disbelief.

  5. Mona, yes, Lynch’s books are on the edge of too gritty for me, and the language is one thing that puts them there. I still like them, but it’s a near thing.

    Evelyn, interesting that you noticed the swearing in Black Dog! Maybe because none of the other characters swear?

    I wonder if the writers of the NASCAR romances weren’t quite smooth enough at using workarounds. Maybe they should have tried reading Nero Wolf mysteries to see how really good writers managed in that era. Also, now I kind of want to go re-read something by Alistair MacLean and pay attention to this aspect of the writing.

    For me, the non-word “alright” throws me out of the story EVERY SINGLE TIME it is used in ANY BOOK EVER. Ugh. That’s the WORST.

    Elaine, I agree, but it can be tricky to make non-modern swearwords sound real. On the other hand, just defaulting to modern cuss words does honestly strike me as lazy, at least some of the time.

  6. Non-modern single words, yeah. Not enough writers go for the extended cursing of the time, even so much as “God’s wounds” or similar. it could flesh out worldbuilding, especially if religion is important. If powers wander the earth you might only invoke them in a swear if you really really mean it. Or are drunk, and then the Power hears and is angry, and story complications happen.
    Or a woman swear by her honor or chastity, and that, a knight by his sword or honor, a scribe by his pen, and the world is deepened.

    It’s another resource that isn’t thought through enough.

  7. One trick I’ve seen is to use “bloody”, which everyone recognizes as a British curse, but no one is particularly offended by. It seems to work well. Even “cursed” works sometimes. But i don’t see. how to avoid real swearing in military fiction.

  8. Two interesting examples:

    The paradigmatic military SF novel is Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS. As best I can recall, it has no profanity, and avoids it skilfully enough that it never occurred to me that was odd.

    In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, of course the heroes don’t curse (not very elvish or hobbitish, we all agree, although one might dispute about the dwarves). And when the orcs come on stage, Tolkien gives a profane impression with no bad language. Tom Simon said, “When Uglúk and Grishnákh use words like ‘filth’, or the Orc slave-driver in Mordor says ‘I reckon eyes are better than your snotty noses’, the reader is meant to infer that these are merely cleaned-up renditions of what they actually said.” — and that fits with the “translation” Tolkien was supposedly doing, as explained in the appendices.

  9. Heinlein was such a catchy writer; I’m not surprised he could pull that off and make it sound natural. It would be interesting to see if anybody has managed it this decade, with general language so much coarser than thirty or forty years ago.

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