Friday, January 6, 2012

WTF--Cursing in Fiction

by Isabo Kelly

I need to preface this article by saying two things. First, I’m going to use bad words. It’s hard not to in an article about cursing. You have been warned.

Second, I had no idea how controversial the issue of cursing in fiction was until I started doing a little research. There are very strong feelings about whether or not swear words are necessary at all, particularly in religious-focused genres and YA (though high fantasy seems to come up in the discussion a lot too). For the record, I’m only going to discuss how to use these words effectively in fiction. Whether or not this kind of language is actually included in your stories is entirely up to you, the needs of the story, the genre conventions and expectations, and the characters being developed.

But if you are going to incorporate those “bad” words…

As with the use of any distinctive language, curse words can be very effective in conveying tone, setting and character. But like any interesting or complex word, the overuse of profanity can also snap readers out of a story. There is a real danger of both watering down the impact of the words and making them feel annoying and monotonous. When using swear words (or for that matter jargon, foreign languages and slang), the balance is all important.

Let’s talk specifically about how cursing is used by and relates to your characters. How often a character cusses and the specific words used is a direct reflection of, can provide great insight into, and really helps with developing your heroes and heroines.

The situation the character finds themselves in should always play an important part in their level of cussing. There are times when even the most foul-mouthed heroine will have to curb her tongue and when the most straight-laced hero will let loose with a sound, “sonofabitch!”

Your character’s job will also impact their word usage. A career soldier is more likely to curse regularly than your average kindergarten teacher. That’s not to say the kindergarten teacher wouldn’t, especially under stress, but the choice of words is probably going to be mitigated by all the time she spends around children—the use of sugar instead of shit for example. And our teacher actually saying “shit” is going to have an impact on the reader that our soldier’s more liberal use of “fucking bastards” might not.

Your character might come from a culture or background in which cussing is just part of everyday language. If this is the case, it’s important to include that feeling in their speech but without taking the usage too far. Just as with any dialogue, real conversation doesn’t translate exactly to the page. Fictional dialogue is edited to read well and simulate realism, not transcribe it. So even if in real life every other word out of your character’s mouth would be a swear word, their dialogue needs to be tailored for the page.

Let’s look at an example: “Ah man, that fucking thing was the fucking worst fucking thing I’ve ever fucking come across in my fucking life. Would you fucking believe my fucking dickwad of a boss asked me to fucking deal with it before the end of the fucking day? Bastard sticks me with that sonofabitch at five on a fucking Friday night for fuck’s sake.”

That’s a lot of fucking in one paragraph. To be fair, if this was only one paragraph in your novel and you did this for the impact and to impart a particular impression of the character speaking, you could almost get away with it. But if this is your main character and they talk like this all the time, readers will get tired of all the cussing very quickly. They will either start skimming the dialogue, or worse, put the book down.

To give the impression of a character that curses liberally while preventing your readers from walking away from your book, cut back on the quantity and use the words where they will have the strongest impact.

“Ah man, that thing was the worst fucking thing I’ve ever come across in my life. Would you believe my dickwad of a boss asked me to deal with it before the end of the fucking day? Bastard sticks me with it at five on a Friday night for fuck’s sake.”

You could even eliminate one or two more “fuck”s and still convey the intentions of the dialogue and character effectively. As with many good things, with profanity less is more.

When delving into the internal narration of your character, incorporating swear words also has to be well balanced. Just as in dialogue, use these words only at the most significant places so they will have the greatest impact. Also, even though a character might cuss liberally in their speech, they might not necessarily think in the same terms. A good way to limit the use of profanity in a book where a character does curse a lot is to take out almost all incidences of swearing from the internal narration and limit the words to dialogue.

Beyond quantity, word choice is important to pay attention to, and again, cultural background will play a huge role here. The word “fanny” isn’t considered particularly naughty in America, but say it in England or Ireland and you’re using a very bad word. (For the record, “fanny” on that side of the Atlantic is a hard, mostly derogatory word for a woman’s genitalia.) On the other hand, most Irish people don’t consider the word “cunt” nearly as bad as American’s do. Even innocuous words like “pants” or “box” can have very different meanings and connotations. And that’s just with cultures that technically speak the same language! If your character speaks a language other than English, and you need that person to curse, do some research on what profanities might realistically be used. Don’t assume because it’s a bad word in the US, it’s a bad word in Japan.

(As a side note, if you write speculative fiction, there’s a whole other layer of world-building involved with creating and using profanities. I’ve included a link below to an excellent couple of articles by Rita-Award winning SFR author Linnea Sinclair on just that topic.)

For those who either don’t want to use profanity or want to limit the on-the-page use to only a few significant moments, there is always the fall back option of simply saying, “he cursed”, or some variation on that. Even if you are using profanity liberally, you might want to use a few of these phrases to help control the balance of those words in your story.

The danger with using this technique, however, is that it can dilute character development. When an American firefighter cusses, she will likely be using some different words from an English or Canadian firefighter. Without showing those words on the page, the reader looses a small but significant insight into your character. Whether that small sacrifice in realism is important to the story or not is entirely up to the author.

Using this default of telling the reader someone curses rather than showing the words can also become as monotonous as the swear words themselves so consider every instance carefully.

On a last note, the use of sexually explicit terminology has increased significantly over the last few decades. With the rise of erotica and erotic romance, a lot of words are no longer quite so taboo as they once were. For example, “cock” shows up all the time in mainstream romances now. Using this kind of graphic language is entirely up to the author. However, graphic words can carry a great deal of impact and really add to the power of a sex scene.

Using bad language is like any other aspect of crafting your story. You have to use it thoughtfully. Swear words can convey a lot about character, setting and tone, and can add grit and realism to your fiction. But overuse can bore the reader and come across as forced. Just remember the less-is-more rule, then don’t be afraid to let the profanities roll.♥

Isabo Kelly’s latest fantasy romance, BRIGHTARROW BURNING, had any number of awkward sentences before editing, most of which were rescued by one of the tips above. For more about Isabo and her books, visit her at, follow her on Twitter and friend her on Facebook

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Isabo, on a subject we often don't think too much about - words. In this case, high powered words. What they say about a character, or a situation, the emotional charge they can carry and - I was giggling to note - the inadvertant major boo boo by using words one culture or another has opposite understandings of. The same goes for the historical use of some words! Wish I could remember the name of the book that is hysterical in its coverage of bad words - like fanny! Thanks for sharing yet another fun side of your writing know how!