Friday, October 25, 2013


I'm in a few Facebook groups related to writing and someone posed an interesting question: Do the characters in your novels swear?

It's sort of strange, when you think about it. I can see why an author might want to refrain from using certain vulgarities. If the author is religious and has convictions against those sort of words; if the author writes for tweens or even teens; if the author writes in certain time settings (think Regency period) where swearing was some serious hankie dropping business.

But I have to admit, my first thought about that question was, "Hell yes, my characters swear."

I'm not going to throw a side-eye at any author who refuses (for whatever reason) to make their characters swear. I will give a major side-eye, however, to any completed novel that has modern adults say stuff like, "That stinks" unironically. There is a line called realism. If you cross that line, no matter how pure your intentions, you've made a big error in the land of fiction writing. (To be clear, the line goes both ways. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can signal character traits like TEEN or THUG or HEARTLESS BUSINESS MAN just by tossing some vulgarities into their dialogue. I mean, who are you, E.L. James writing about currency changes in China?*)

For the record, it is entirely possible to write a novel with realistic characters in a modern setting and not have any of them swear. That's what I set out to do with my last manuscript, JAYMA RODGERS GOES TO COLLEGE, since I knew I was going to be submitting it to LDS publishers. That being said ... had Jayma and her friends been hunting down a serial killer, involved in a car crash, lost their jobs, or had any other high-stress, high-drama moment come their way ... I'm not sure I could say the same. JRGTC was a romantic comedy set in college, and while there is conflict, it's more of the "mixed romantic messages," "loneliness," "failed chemistry tests," and "existential angst of being in college and not knowing what you're doing" variety. In other words, it's slice-of-life kind of stuff.

My current project is a bit heavier, and accordingly, the characters swear. It's a part of their teenage, dealing-with-drama-beyond-that-should-have-been-beyond-their-maturity-level thang. (Oh mygosh, I am so old. Thang.)

Do I feel bad about it? Hell, no. (The cursing, not the-being-old.)

That being said ... I think no matter what kind of character I wrote, there are certain things I just wouldn't have them say, words I consider far more offensive than any technical swear could be. (This is me, getting off my high horse.) So I suppose everyone has a line in the sand. Except Stephen King, because I'm pretty sure there's nothing that man won't write, and man, I love him for it.

Writers, where is your "line"? Do you have one? And readers, what is the most egregious example of non-realistic dialogue you've ever encountered? (Either of the vulgar/attempting to avoid being vulgar, or the "this clause modifies the provisos!"* variety?)

Finally, I leave you with this thought, dear Blog friends, from a cherished film from my childhood:

"He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master."
-Ralphie, A Christmas Story

* For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of reading 50 Shades of Grey, Ms. James characterizes her 27-year-old bazillionaire Christian Grey by having him shout nonsense into the phone like, "I don't care about currency changes in China, damnit!" and "The remaining subclauses of this clause are to be read subject to this proviso and the clauses above! Ugh, gosh, why is everyone so much dumber than me?" 

So. Yeah. I still do not know what Christian Grey's company does. Though, to be fair, Christian's lady-love Ana (a college graduate and an English major) responds to all of it with "Holy crap!" and "Jeez." 

Ahem. Let that sink in for a second.

The realism thing cuts in a lot of different directions.


  1. I think I'm too old fashioned to participate in this discussion, but I'll speak up anyway :)

    One of the many reasons I love reading is the literary language. I don't want to read about some bro I can find next door, who "tells it how it is" - I don't need to buy a book to be exposed to that. I want to read about someone who inspires me with their actions AND their words, which includes having a better way to convey emotions than swearing. I don't mean to sound harsh and I do understand that there are SOME instances when it might be necessary, but it's not something I like seeing on a regular basis. Also, what kind of swearing are we talking about?

    I promise you I'm not a prude. At least I don't think I am... However, I was raised on classical literature and when I don't read classical I keep to fantasy, historical fiction, sci-fi and dystopian YA. In a nutshell, I like to stay as far away from daily realism as I can, so that might have something to do with my attitude toward swearing. But isn't reading a form of escapism for most people?

    Sorry for the rant :)

    1. Not a rant, and thanks for commenting! I definitely agree, when you're not in the mood for "realism," it can be a real chore if writers want to shove some edgy-gritty-edginess in your face. I also think "realism" in fiction should be a heightened realism, because you're right -- I could go to the grocery store or watch reality TV if I just wanted to see regular people behaving the way the do.

      My point is that the characters match their genre. In your examples (fantasy, historical fiction, sci-fi, dystopian), I'm not sure it really would make a lot of sense to have characters speaking the way modern day people speak now. It would really pull me out of the world the author has created if they did. That being said, I think George RR Martin's SONG OF FIRE AND ICE novels are the perfect example of the exception proving the rule. The author has deliberately created a world that is half fantasy, half historical, and his characters are treated accordingly. (Violence, terror, warfare, hunger, poverty -- if there wasn't language to match, it wouldn't work.)

      My point is simply that authors need to make a choice when they're writing dialogue. If they don't want their characters to swear, that's totally fine, but then they have to ask themselves if they have put their characters into settings and situations where a similarly situated person WOULD swear? Writing historical or fantasy or sci fi is actually the perfect way to avoid swearing if you'd prefer not to. Swearing, in some cases, is superfluous and too much of it can create the exact same problem that artificially avoiding swearing can cause -- pulling the reader out of the story.

      But if I'm reading, for example, a really authentic, gritty, GRIM story about the Civil War, or blasting through the Sierras to complete the Trans-Continental Railroad, or the Great Depression ... I'm going to expect characters that speak the way we know people spoke back then -- more complex syntax, worse grammar among less educated populations, and probably a lot of swearing under pressure or despair. Otherwise, if I see a character who just amputated a leg sigh and say, "Shoot, that's a shame," I'm going to put the book down because now the author has lost me as a reader.

      It's less about what words there are, exactly, and more whether or not those words will seem authentic to readers.

    2. I think you're absolutely right. This makes me think about scenes with "Russian" mafia in movies these days (or any kind of Russian people for that matter). Most of the time they're showing thugs, people with questionable morals and/or people in very extreme circumstances. The dialogue is so artificial to someone who grew up in that culture, I burst out laughing every time.
      Movie scene: people shooting people, everyone is about to die, buildings exploding.
      Mean looking Russians: "This is bad. Come here. Do this."
      Ummm... no.

  2. I always find this discussion interesting. If not a bit, well, pointless maybe? We're looking at language (ie swearing) through the lens of our own cultural filter. The Classics do employ 'bad language' we just don't see it as such because NOW it's been absorbed into the norm. Or we see it as 'how they spoke back then'. See what I mean? Swearing does convey emotion. If used properly. I'm not saying dropping the f-bomb every other word is the proper way to write either. But even back in Victorian times this was a perfectly acceptable way to insult someone. Language is fascinating. Swearing and insults and slang are probably the way we are able to best understand cultures. It's how people REALLY speak to each other.

    1. I definitely can agree with you about looking at it through the cultural filter. However, I wouldn't put swearing and insults in the same category, as one can insult another without using "bad language". This is often more powerful than calling someone a f#&%ing , in my opinion and experience. Yes, both convey emotion. That's the beauty of language. I also see your point about understanding cultures, but wouldn't agree that swearing is how "people really speak". Some people, yes, nothing wrong with that. However, I do have friends and family who don't swear or use much slang, and I can assure you they are very real. I guess, this goes back to the characters and genre of the book - who are they? What is their background? As you said, swearing has to be used properly.

    2. I love this discussion, thank you both for commenting.

      And I totally agree, it's about whether or not the language is used properly. Just like you can't write teenagers who sound like adults, you can write a character with a X background in Y situation and Z culture but then have them speak in a way that doesn't match X, Y, or Z.

  3. Maybe it's because I spend too much time with teenagers, but I absolutely notice it when the language is incredibly mild in life-threatening situations. I just finished The Maze Runner because a few of my students had read it and kept rolling my eyes when they think they're going to die and "holy crap!" is the most explicit term in the book. It actually annoyed me.