PROFANITY! …in writing…

Hey Mother Cluckers!

This particular article is brought to you by Samuel L. Jackson. Okay, it’s really not, but if he were reading it, he would probably approve of the following content…hehe.

Having your characters swear is not a new thing. In fact, I’m fairly certain that using cuss words in writing is probably almost as old as written communication itself. If not, then it #@$!% should be…

I have a few writer buddies out there who love to use F-Bombs. I mean LOVE to use them. Every other word in dialogue is F-This or F-That. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a well-placed Shit or Damn as much as the next guy, but a lot of it comes off as gratuitous and I’m not a fan of that.

Fecal Matter on Toast!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude by any means. In fact, the expression “cussing like a sailor” was one of my guiding principles both in and out of the Navy for the longest time. However, with age comes wisdom and with reading comes vocabulary. The beauty of having an extensive vocabulary is that you can modify the most disgusting and crass of things into language that can be utilized anywhere and with anyone. To me, that’s a mark of intelligence.

Forking A, Dude!

I use a particular rule of thumb when I am deciding what goes into one of  my stories:

Unless it advances the plot or adds insight to a character, it’s probably best to leave it out.

But Wallace, you may be thinking, I have characters that are crass and low-brow and thorough pieces of crap. If I don’t use profanity in their speech, how will I convey their personality?

Glad you asked. 😉 I’m not saying don’t use profanity. What I am suggesting is to save up those oh-so-special colloquialisms for those time in the plot where you need to make a particular point. In Parallax, Jack Pratt, swore maybe 4-5 times and then only when the circumstances were dire enough or he was frustrated enough that he needed to vent. Look, we all react to circumstances in different ways, but in Pratt’s case, he was up against overwhelming odds and when rational thought goes bye-bye, there’s only that special language to fall back on.

Again, I’m not saying don’t use it. Save those special words for special times to give your scene that extra-special punch. Do it right and your readers will start talking.

Thanks for your time and remember that sometimes you just have to throw your hands up in the air and yell “Well, Fudge!”

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17 thoughts on “PROFANITY! …in writing…

  1. You’re right on. Some characters are just going to curse. It doesn’t have to dominate a conversation but it also shouldn’t be noticeably absent, either. I sometimes just describe my characters as cursing rather than actually cursing, like, “he cursed under his breath” or he spat out an oath.” But sometimes you just have to drop the bomb!

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  2. I think it’s rare for any person not to ever curse at all, so it would be odd for a character not to curse either. However, there’s no need to literally spell it out for the reader. I prefer to go with “cursed under their breath” or “bit back an unladylike utterance” instead. It gives the same feel, but let’s the reader choose their own “choice words.” But I think in fantasy you can get away with that, maybe not so much in contemporary settings. As a reader, I absolutely loved the variety of curse phrases Robert Jordan came up with for his characters. Blood and bloody ashes! XD

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  3. My character swears a lot – he’s also ex-Navy 😉 – but I keep to the PG-13 rule when it comes to F-bombs: only one or two allowed in the entire book. I do find excessive swearing to be distracting in a book, even if it seems in character. It’s like, okay, I get it, he’s a scuzzy tattoo artist with allycat morals. He doesn’t need to be written by Tarintino!

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  4. Profanity creates an impact, but only when rare. If it’s a constant, it will actually detract from the character who doesn’t use it. Contextual description can help to reserve and prevent desensitization that could hinder a possible big bang.

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