Note: This post does not give a solid answer to the question raised in the title, but it does discuss the pros and cons of using “bad language,” so that you can make an informed opinion. Also, since there’s a discussion of bad language, I do *shocker* include the words d--- and h--- when showing examples of writing with and without swearing.
I love to read the James Herriot books, with his hilarious, heart-warming, and poignant stories of being a traveling vet in Yorkshire. But when I first read the books, I read them with a black pen in hand, and blacked out every bad word as I came across it. Even as my tolerance for bad language has increased over the years, I still feel a brief mental tweak whenever I hit a d--- or a f---. It just bothers me.
When it comes to cussing and crude language, we all have different tolerances, and I’m not so snooty as to think that my tolerance level is the standard. *Gasp* “You perverted heathen, you! You wrote/read a book that included the D word! Shame, shame!”
Here are some of my general thoughts on bad language in fiction:
Is it necessary?
Seriously, does it make the book so much better when your hard-boiled main character lets loose a pinata’s worth of profanities? In 95% of cases, if you delete the bad language, the nature of the dialogue doesn’t change much, if at all. I think someone would have to get pretty creative to prove that bad language improves a story overall. And I have a hunch that, if bad language is central to your story, you probably don’t have much of a story, and it’s the plot—not the language—that should be reassessed.
Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain
While this quote is about the overuse of very, it also says something about how unnecessary the word damn is. If the writing is “just as it should be” once the editor deletes the offensive word, then what use did that word have in the first place?
What about tone?
Okay, I admit it: There are definitely times when a single swear word sets a specific tone. For example, a character suddenly realizes that he’s made a huge mistake, the enemy hordes have discovered his error, and they’re about to exploit it to the fullest extent possible.
He leaned over the console, his pupils dilated with the scene unraveling on the monitor. His mouth went dry as he suddenly recognized the danger.
Try this scene without a swear word and, while it is still riveting, it loses some of the emotion. The character’s response tells you something about his thoughts. The one word “damn” sums up “I feel so stupid, I’m totally understating my internal freak-out, and I realize I just might not get out of this alive” in one succinct word.
Christian comedian Brad Stein admits that swear words, in the case of immediate pain, “seem like just the right man for the job.”
“I don’t know what it is about slamming your hand [in a car door] but sometimes ‘ouch’ just doesn’t cut it.” - Brad Stein
So I admit that swear words can have an awfully satisfying percussiveness to them.
On the other hand… (You knew there was another hand, didn’t you? Yes, that’s because human beings usually have two hands.) On the other hand, when you decide not to use swear words to convey strong emotion, you can come up with some wonderfully clever words to convey the same thing with a clean vocabulary. And if you can do it, why not? It saves the author from alienating a certain segment of readership with more sensitive consciences and it doesn’t detract from the story’s overall power.
“Creativity is funnier than crude,” Brad Stein remarks. And he’s right. Sometimes using swear words is a cop-out. It’s the easy shortcut to emotion for those who are too impatient to craft a powerful scene more carefully.
Suppose we go back to our hero in the first example, and remove the swear word. How will we show the depth of his emotion?
He leaned over the console, his pupils dilated with the scene unraveling on the monitor. His mouth went dry as he suddenly realized what was happening. He turned away and sank into his seat, his eyes fixed on the invisible horror of his own thoughts.
Emotion? I think so. Swear words? Nary a one. Amazing what you can do with a little rearrangement, isn’t it?
What about when bad language tells you something about the character who uses it?
*Cue rant* Captain America/Steve Rogers is my favorite superhero. Unlike some of the other superheroes, he’s honest and very respectful of women. He’s also brave, selfless, and kind to others. Sometimes that makes the other characters laugh at him. In the opening scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man/Tony Stark uses a bad word and Captain America responds with “Language!”—a blatant reminder that Stark had better watch his mouth. The other characters use this occasion to tease Steve about his high verbal standards.
Later in the movie, Steve lets loose with a few mild swear words and other characters give him a look like, “Ah! You do swear. Join our club.” Now, the words Cap uses aren’t the mother-killers that Tony uses, but it was at that point that I got a little heated. Come on, Steve has been a great example of restraint and courteous behavior and speech for how many movies? And suddenly he feels compelled to prove that he’s “one of the dudes” by swearing?
It’s cheap, guys. Really, really cheap.
You’re not more of a real man if your mouth is dirtier. You’re just more of an average guy with average character. Way to distinguish yourself.
Ugh! Another character’s integrity compromised by some cheap counterfeit of “manliness”!
So, the upshot: Swearing shows something about your story’s character, all right. But maybe it’s not showing his better side.
What if the swearing character is a bad guy? Well, I've read books where the author kindly noted, "He swore vehemently," and somehow I've gotten the idea.
What about substitute swear words?
If you’re not comfortable with an actual swear word, a substitute swear word can fill the context while not triggering the ire of sensitive readers. Comedian Tim Hawkins’ fans helped him to come up with a list of “Christian swear words,” including shucks, rats, gadzooks, crapola, turd, flipping, cripes, crud, dad blame-it… Author James Dashner came up with shuck-face, slint-head, and shank as insults/swear words in his Maze Runner series. Author Margaret Peterson Haddix made up the “swear” word ex-nay, and, while I have not read her book yet, Gillian Bronte Adams has reportedly invented some hilariously clever substitute swear words, such as boggswoggle.
I’ve used that technique on occasion. In The Memory (not published yet) I used the words “ransom” and “e’meth” as swear words. Of course, there’s a point to that. The words are meant to point to a society’s vilification of a particular person/race. In my work-in-progress, other swear words function similarly, as a marker of those things which society has condemned or belittled. I think there’s a use to “swear words” like that.
On the other hand, sometimes substitutions are just sneaky ways of saying the same thing. When you say “Jeez,” it’s just another way of using Christ’s name flippantly and disrespectfully. (Or, as the Bible would put it, of “taking the Lord’s name in vain" or "blaspheming.") Oh my God/gosh is the same deal, and obviously G-dd--- is a terrible disrespect of God’s name. Even if you’re not a Christian, it’s worth asking yourself: “Would I use my best friend’s name as a curse? Would I use Buddha’s name or Mohammed’s name as a curse? So why am I using Christ’s name that way?”
Matthew 12:36 gives a scary warning that we will have to give an account one day for every careless word we have spoken. Reckless, thoughtless, or profane speech does have a consequence eventually, and that’s nothing to take lightly.
What about when they’re used literally?
Many swear words have literal meanings. I won’t go on at length about this, but let me make a few observations about the words “damn” (meaning to cast one’s soul into Hell) and “hell” (or, if you prefer, H-E-double hockey sticks).
In one of my favorite scenes in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is asked to defile a picture of Christ as part of his initiation in Belbury College. Mark hesitates, asks why his colleague expects him to respond to “superstition” like the crucified Christ, and spends some time considering what might result from various responses. At last he snaps, “It’s all bloody nonsense, and I’m damned if I do any such thing.”
If you’re not a Christian, it probably sounds like the sort of British bluster that a cornered man might make. But if you’re a Christian, the word “damned” has a very literal meaning. Yes, if Mark Studdock does what is asked of him, he will be very literally damned.
In a similar way, in my #5MinuteFiction story “The Immortal Horses,” my main character’s metaphorical use of language is reviewed literally.
“What the hell is going on?” he snapped.
And later on...
I think you get the idea: there are times when the literal use of a swear word reveals context that might otherwise be missed. However, this technique is most powerful when used sparingly.
So we've established the following...
As extra reading, if you're interested, Michael Hyatt gives three reasons why profanity could cost you. (Click here to read his article)
He also has a podcast/video that gets into this concept in more depth. (Click here to watch/listen)
So what about me, personally, as a writer of speculative fiction? Well, I admit feeling a tug toward using certain words because of their percussive value or tone-setting abilities. But I see more value in stretching my writing muscles and creatively finding ways to produce the same effect without using potentially offensive language. At the moment, I only use substitute swear words, specifically intended to point out a societal attitude toward someone/something, as I do in The Memory. I also occasionally use profanity literally, as I do in The Immortal Horses. In all other cases, I keep my language as G-rated as possible. My opinion on profanity/cussing/swear words has shifted over time, and I expect that it will continue to be a work-in-progress.
What about you? What are your thoughts on the issue? What evidence can you offer that backs up your assertions? What influences your opinion?
I write YA/adult fantasy & sci-fi that explores fantastic and interconnected worlds, with stories that burn through the darkest realities with hope and redemption.
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