Swearing in Novels: My Take

Mar. 22nd 2011

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 »