Word Wisdom: Swearing

Posted: December 9, 2011 in Word Wisdom, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Page 736 from Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows by J.K. Rowling

I’m not a huge fan of swearing. Most of my immediate family seem to enjoy using cuss words nearly as many times as they open their mouths to talk, but I was brought up knowing that it wasn’t something you did in the house. And, it was assumed, you didn’t do it outside of the house, either.

I have no qualms with that. I think swearing can easily make an intelligent person look stupid. Nice people instantly turn rude. You’re suddenly not taken seriously. If you can’t think of the proper way to speak and share your emotions, please just do yourself a favor and don’t talk.

Well, that’s how I feel in most cases.

Recently, I realized that swearing can come in handy. If you don’t do it a lot, slipping in an expletive here or there can make the people around you suddenly take you very seriously. If I swear (which, honestly, almost never happens) my friends know that I mean business. I’m not someone to be trifled with when I’m angry, and they know to back off.

So, what does this mean for your writing? Should you use some choice words in your story, or shouldn’t you? When does it lend itself to your story, and when does it take away from it? I’ve got some tips that will hopefully help answer those questions.

(The inspiration for this post, by the way, came from this blog entry by Jenny Hansen. She talks about creative ways to not swear when that’s really all you want to do. Please give it a read – I promise you’ll be laughing by the end of it. And you’ll probably get some good ideas out of it, too.)

When to leave the swearing out:

  1. When your audience (whether intended or not) is still in that “impressionable” stage. By age 15, when most kids have already hit high school, it can be assumed that they have an arsenal of snappy comebacks that would shame their mother if she heard them. Even so, kids that age (and younger) don’t need that kind of enhancement of vocabulary. It’s probably best to leave your more imaginative insults out of your work.
  2. When your characters don’t lend themselves to that kind of behavior. In most novels, characters run the story. The plot is important, obviously, but the characteristics of your protagonist or antagonist are what drive that plotline – their actions steer the story in the direction that it goes in. Be aware of your characters. You might be the kind of person that casually drops the f-bomb mid conversation with your grandmother, but does that stay true for your characters? Take yourself out of the story and start realizing that your characters are people, too.
  3. When the occasion definitely doesn’t call for it. In college, I had an amazing array of English teachers. One of my favorites was Jimmy (yes, he let us call him by his first name). He was an incredible writer, and one day he let us read one of his unpublished short stories. I really enjoyed it (although, all I can remember about it now was that it had something to do with hiking and a bear, I think), but he dropped the f-bomb half way through it and I was suddenly thrust out of the story. It seemed forced and out of place. The scene wasn’t tense and there was no arguing, so why did he decide to put it in there? Well, in fact, that was his question to us. He wasn’t sure it fit, and he wanted our opinions. I don’t think I said anything that day, but most of the class had the same feeling I did: it just didn’t belong. There was no reason to swear in that case. It didn’t lend itself to the story and it didn’t help us understand the main character.

When to keep the swearing in your story:

  1. When your audience can handle it. I’ve found that Young Adult fiction can be juvenile or it can be dark. There is a wide spectrum there, and sometimes I feel as if there should be sub-categories in this genre. For the older YA readers (like me) some swearing isn’t going to astonish us or put us off your book. The same goes for any adult fiction. It definitely isn’t anything that we haven’t heard before, and we’re more than capable of acting mature about it.
  2. When the characters call for it. Is your main character a brooding delinquent teenage boy ripe with angst? Or is she, perhaps, a drug addict who always finds herself in the wrong situations with the wrong people? Characterization is important to the believability of a character, and dialogue often helps that along faster than description does. If the character is the type of person to swear like a sailor (or maybe he IS a sailor) then by all means, throw it in there. How a person speaks shows what type of a person they are nearly as well as how they handle themselves.
  3. When the occasion calls for it. If someone is having a fight with their loved one, or finds themselves in a sticky situation, an expletive is often the first thing that escapes their mouth. Swearing would be realistic in that situation, and is definitely called for.

So, as with everything, take swearing in moderation. No one wants to read a book where they can find the f-word ten times on all 208 pages of your novel. It would get old pretty fast. But, it can lend itself to your story. Just like in real life, it can show the gravity of the situation. It can let your audience know that your characters are worried or angry. Don’t discount its power, but don’t overuse it or it will lose all of its inherent influence.

Got anything to add? Do you have pet peeves when it comes to cuss words your find in a book? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    Oh my goodness, Karen…THANK you for this post. I’m honored to have inspired so much thought on the subject. I had a REALLY good time writing that post, as I’m sure you noticed. I think you did a magnificent job of tackling the whole issue.

    Many of my characters do curse (go figure) but it’s nearly always harder to figure out the dialogue for a character who never does. I agree with you right down the line that it’s about the characters AND the readers.

    Happy blogging, and thanks for making my day.

  2. StoriesAndSweetPotatoes says:

    Good topic. Also, I loved that post by Jenny! I could care less about swearing either way. There are situations where it’s not appropriate and I don’t like when people are intentionally disrespectful. However, I don’t like to censor myself either. I swear mostly in comical situations and I don’t feel guilty about it, lol 🙂

    • Those are the best kinds of situations to swear, I think. Sometimes a punchline just needs that cuss word for it to be over-the-top funny. I think of George Carlin in that sense. He wouldn’t have been half as funny as he was if he censored himself.

Tell me what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s