Cursing in fantasy novels

Here’s a great post by Sherwood Smith at Book View Café: Worldbuilding: Curses and Cusses .

How many Sf or fantasy novels have you read, or shows have you watched, that toss you right out when the characters started cussing and the made-up words, or euphemisms, sound totally fake?

Some writers solve the problem by ignoring it. American writers use American slang, metaphors, and cusswords, even in invented worlds full of dragons and magic…

SOME American writers certainly do, and wow can that seem jarring, speaking of tossing the reader out of the story. It depends. American modern idiom sounds really strange in some fantasy worlds. Fake words that sound fake, not great; but there are (I’m sure) examples of fake words that don’t sound fake. Feel free to mention examples. The examples I personally can think of right offhand are in SF stories, not fantasy.

Anyway, this is an issue that I have had to deal with every. single. time. I write a book set in a brand-new world. You may well not have noticed, but there is zero cursing in House of Shadows. Nada.

If you look, you will see that there is no cursing or cussing of any kind in the Griffin Mage trilogy either. Yes, I did find that a little confining.

Remember the cursing in The City in the Lake? “Cracking ice!” and like that. I don’t remember, but things like that. There are no references to gods or God in that world, so I had to come up with something else.

In many fantasy worlds, including one of mine — the Floating Islands — people swear by “the gods,” right? I don’t do a lot with religion in that world — nothing much at all, in fact — but people do say “We thank the Gods!” and “Gods preserve us!” and stuff like that.

In The Mountain of Kept Memory, of course the gods are all dead. So curse are things like “Gods dead and forgotten!” That worked well for that world.

There’s just one God in The White Road of the Moon, and there religion is important. But did you notice the God is genderless? If the copy editor and I caught everything, you should never, ever see a gender reference in relation to the God. In that world, the God is not really personified at all.

So, let’s see what Sherwood Smith has to say about this topic. … Ah, as one might expect, we get a good deal of historical context in this post. Thus:

Another worldbuilding curiosity to keep in mind is how words can alter in meaning and effect over time. … “Plaguey” is merely a quaint adjective, … no one anymore says, “Plague take you!” which was an extremely serious imprecation indeed after the mid 1300s, when half the population of Europe died within about a year. “Zounds!” was “God’s wounds!”–one of those expressions one swore by, incomprehensible now.

In some cultures, people swear by something, usually deities or leaders, either their own or someone else’s. In our history, for example, a hundred years ago it was okay to swear by the Greek or Roman gods: “By Jupiter!” was all right for gentlemen to say (though not for ladies) but “By God!” was considered blasphemous by either sex. …

Lots more in the post. Well, it’s an interesting topic, and yes indeed it is an fundamental part of worldbuilding. Are there gods or aren’t there, and is it safe to swear by them or isn’t it? Fundamental, indeed. And that’s before we get to cussing based on excretion or sex — which is, I would argue, more important for tone (gritty or not?) than for worldbuilding per se.

I will add, yes, Winter of Ice and Iron treats gods in a completely different way again: real, but removed from human society, potentially dangerous, not entities to pray to or curse by… well, you’ll see this fall!

BTW, click on the newsletter link above and sign up to be automatically entered in a drawing for an ARC of Winter, and you could get a look at the Fortunate and Unfortunate Gods well in advance of the release date.

Winter of Ice and Iron, US Hardback

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6 thoughts on “Cursing in fantasy novels”

  1. Because I have just finished listening to Bujold’s Chalion/Five Gods series, it’s pretty fresh in my mind. Nice example of an organic curse lexicon (which is a very strange series of words), mostly because the Gods are so intimate in and integral to those stories.

  2. I’m rereading White Road and have noticed the one God unpersonified. But liking dogs :-)

    I’m also rereading Riddle-Master and haven’t noticed cursing one way or another, beyond ‘x cursed mildly’ – whatever is there fits right in. If ‘wraith-ridden’ isn’t there as an epithet, it ought to be… I should look.

    Whereas long ago I was irritated by a book wherein everyone cursed by ‘cursed x’. The author (at a signing where I brought this up) said it was all she could think of at the time. Sequels did get more imaginative.

    I appreciated Dag’s ‘dead gods’ in Sharing Knife

    There are some interesting comments in the long thread below the original post.

  3. Made up curses bother me more than actual ones. I don’t mind it unless there’s a lot of cursing–and done well, it makes the novel better: the language is more ‘colorful’, if you will.

  4. I should say ‘made up obscenities’ rather than ‘made up curses’. New phrases are fine–well in the tradition of cursing. New words, not so much. It just makes it stand out even more.

  5. The made-up curse words on Battlestar Galactica worked for me. So did the made-up curse words on Farscape. Maybe this is just something that works better on television than in written forms?

  6. The Chalion series stands out as offering one of the few fictional religions that feels really religious, so it makes sense that any curses that come out of that religion also feel right.

    I thought the made-up word in Tanya Huff’s Valor series worked pretty well. It let her insert at TON of cussing without turning off readers who don’t like real cuss words. I agree with Pete that in military SF cussing doesn’t seem out of place, but I respect Huff’s choice there because I know people (my mother, for example) who won’t touch a book if it has vulgar language in it.

    I ought to go watch some more episodes of Battlestar Galactica. I have the first couple seasons, but I have only watched a few episodes. Whatever cursing and cussing went on, I didn’t notice, so it must have seemed to fit.

    And it sounds like I should go back to Smith’s original post and read through the comments, too. *Makes a note.*

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