Swearing in Novels: My Take

22/03/11 3:39 PM

I’ve been following some interesting discussions about the use of profanity in novels. It started on Kindle Boards in this thread titled “Gutter-mouth.” Then I continued the conversation over on my Facebook page, since I was curious as to what people there had to say.

I also thought about it a lot during the final go-through of Forgotten April, my debut novel that’s coming out in May. In earlier versions, I had lots of cussing, but the cussing had less to do with my characters and story and had more to do with me, I think. I was giving myself permission to be naughty by letting f-bombs fly freely on paper.

See, I was raised a good little Catholic girl (you always gotta watch out for anyone who says this), and I don’t think I swore with any vigor (or at all, really) until my mid 20s, and we’re talking after college. Since then, my mouth has devolved into occasional vulgarity that could make a trucker blush, and I take pleasure in occasionally shocking my dear almost-80-year-old mother with a string of expletives. But I always do that (the latter anyway) in jest and for effect and to make sure she’s paying attention (she always is — she also has five sons in addition to me, so it’s a lot harder to shock her than you might think). It’s like I’m making up for my lack of rebellion during my youth, even as I sit here approaching 40.

So when I first started penning Forgotten April ten or so years ago, it almost felt like I was getting away with something by having my characters cuss. And cuss they did. A lot, and for no particular reason.

And therein lies the problem, I think. Like every other word and action that happens in a story, each and every “thing” needs to serve the story and be true to the character. If you’re dealing with an ex-con who is about to rape a woman, he’s probably not going to be all polite and proper. He might even — heaven forbid — utter the “C” word. And the woman, in danger and fearing for her life, is probably not thinking of propriety, either, even if she is Miss Priss in real life. It would be odd, in my mind, if these characters, particularly the ex-con, didn’t swear. It wouldn’t ring true, and that would affect my reading of the piece.

That said, I do know there are readers who can’t stand any form of cussing. I respect these folks, and I realize they’re probably not my audience anyway, since my writing tends more toward the dark side in topics and situations. Characters in my worlds swear. But they don’t swear nearly the amount that I had them doing in earlier drafts of my novel and short stories. I exorcised 90 percent of the cussing in Forgotten April and kept only the swears that fit the scene/situation and character.

Restraint is necessary and perhaps even our responsibility as writers. Like every other word we pore over and consider, we need to give each curse, cuss, and expletive careful consideration as well. Just because we can have a character say, “Oh, f*ck!” doesn’t mean we should.

What’s your take, readers and writers? Does swearing turn you off, do you not care, or does it depend on the character/situation/story? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing | 6 Comments »

6 Comments on “Swearing in Novels: My Take”

  1. Phil Says:

    Agreed, Robyn! I think there is definitely a place for swearing in novels, but as you said, the swearing needs to serve a purpose and avoid gratuity for shock value alone.

  2. Steve T Says:

    I think some people on the FB page were mistakenly pairing profanity with bad writing. That is not always the case.
    In a YA novel, I’d keep it clean. For everyone else, it’s fine. If I’m reading a novel about a prison inmate or a mobster, I expect profanity. I would notice it if the character didn’t swear. Writers need to choose their characters’ words carefully to make them appear authentic. Sometimes those carefully chosen words need to be the four-letter kind.

  3. Geoffrey Cubbage Says:

    A little goes a long way. I like that people are starting to get comfortable with writing profanity into dialogue, but the reality is that we’re much more accustomed to hearing profanity — it’s pretty much everywhere on TV and radio these days — than we are to seeing the words written out. Dropping a swear word in casual conversation at a bar won’t even raise an eyebrow these days, but if you wrote it into an e-mail it’d still be a faux pas, just because the sensation of seeing those four letters staring up from the page is still so jarring to us. So you can create a pretty profane mood with just one or two actual obscenities.

  4. Michael Offutt Says:

    What’s your audience? My thought is that I like swearing if it is realistic in the book. But I like adult content, Robyn. I rarely go to PG rated movies because I think the more adult…the better. So yeah, if the swearing fits, bring it on and I’ll be entertained. However, to use your example of the Catholic upbringing, I doubt Catholic nuns will give you any money for your book. They might even denounce it. If it bothers you that Catholic nuns and the Pope may be turned away by your novel, then you should cater to them (but you would lose me as a potential buyer). So I say, write what you want to write and your audience will gravitate toward you. “You cannot please all of the people all of the time.”

  5. Ghenet Myrthil Says:

    I agree with you. Like I said on Twitter, you’d be surprised how much cursing there is in YA. Of course it’s not in every book but it’s in a lot of them, usually the “F” and “S” words. I don’t see the problem with it in YA since teens in real life curse all the time. It just has to make sense for the story and character.

    I also agree with you about restraint. Even if cursing rings true for a character, that doesn’t mean you should have him or her cursing every other line. It gets old quickly.

    Great topic!

  6. Robyn Says:

    What I find fascinating is how many readers are turned off by swearing…my evidence is anecdotal, I realize, but I was surprised by the number of people who said as much in the Kindle Board thread I reference above. Some said they’d stop reading if they encountered a cuss word and wouldn’t read anything by the author again. Yikes!

    @Michael, to your point, those folks aren’t my audience, for sure, but I also know that my use of profanity was gratuitous in my earlier drafts of my novel. It was fun — and freeing — just to write the words and have my characters use them. But that’s not a good enough reason to justify their gutter mouths. I think where I use ’em in my final draft is fair, but I’m sure there will be people who disagree.

    @ghenet — I’m trying to remember the stuff I read as a teen…I can’t recall much profanity. Catcher in the Rye was a “big deal” in my eyes in regards to the language. Although I do recall some saucy verbiage in Canterbury Tales (not YA, but I read it in middle or high school). I wonder if realistic language helps engage teen readers more today? Hmm.