To Swear or Not To Swear...

Saturday, November 03, 2007
While writing my memoirs about life with my mother, I came to a dilemma a few times. You see, we were not the Brady Bunch and there were times when, unfortunately, Mom swore at us like a truck driver.

In all fairness, it was when she was under the influence of something or when she was manic but still…she wasn’t a “Golly gee” type of person. The dilemma I came to was this: Do I quote her verbatim or merely indicate she’d sworn with a sentence like, “She cursed at us.” I decided to be true to the situation and depict how it truly was in our house, the swearing had to occur.

Now, don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t like an episode of The Sopranos. But there are a few curse words sprinkled throughout my memoirs. I think I worried whether my readers would be offended by the use of the curse words and if they’d actually believe my mother spoke that way. But I figured I didn’t use them in every sentence and those closest to my Mom knew she was no saint. So, I decided they were appropriate in the places I used them.

When is it okay to use swear words in your work? I found an awesome article on this subject in the current issue of Writer’s Digest. In Morgan’ Hunt’s article, “When to Use Swear Words in your Writing,” there are three questions a writer should ask themselves when deciding whether to use these words:

(See Hunt's full article here)

1. DOES IT WORK FOR THE READER? My mystery series is intended as an intelligent woman's beach read; my target readers are college-educated female Boomers. Intuition told me this demographic would tolerate occasional swearwords but would shun their constant or intense use. Research confirmed my take on my audience's tolerance of bleep-ables. With my readers in mind, I decided my amateur sleuth would swirl azure tints into her verbal palette but would rarely paint the world blue. In Fool on the Hill, I questioned whether to have her quote a particular Humphrey Bogart quip without censoring his use of the f-word. I chose to allow it because it told the reader something specific about her character, which brings me to the next question.

2. DOES IT WORK FOR THE CHARACTER? Are swearwords essential to help the character squirm, grow or revel on paper? Are they not only an acceptable choice, but the best choice for a character and circumstance?

"When rewriting, I do scrutinize a character's word choices to make sure the language rings true to the situation and evokes the character's personality and mood," says bestselling novelist Lolly Winston. "If a character's swearing a lot, she may seem more harsh or bitter than I've intended. For example, I found myself toning down Elinor's language in Happiness Sold Separately, because I wanted her to be acerbic and funny, not bitter or hostile."

Writers sometimes kindle scenes of eroticism with swearwords. But books like Mary Gordon's Spending and Gabriel Garc’a M‡rquez' Love in the Time of Cholera grill characters to perfection with few obscene flames, even in the most lascivious moments. Inspired by such writers, I allow my protagonist to unleash her libido sans Anglo Saxon bluntness.

The sometimes currish murder suspects in my mysteries present a greater challenge. We live in the real world; those who disrespect human life enough to kill aren't going to balk at a word rhyming with duck.

Certainly swearwords have been used by some of the greats to portray unsavory characters. In Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, there are the f-word conversations of frat boys and campus jocks. Its repetition simulates a dialect, which Wolfe calls "f*** patois." His use of swearwords is intentional; it lays bare the rebellion and arrogance of the privileged students who choose such coarse idiom.

But moral rot doesn't compel verbal raunch. Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter doesn't say, "I ate his liver with some f*****g beans." If Lecter spoke that way, we could perceive him as crude or inarticulate. Though Harris puts verbal venom in the mouths of other characters, the f-word he gives Lecter is "fava." We're forced to accept Lecter as a man of education and refinement, making his malignance all the more chilling.

If your readers will accept obscenities and your character could conceivably say them, your last determinant may be one of conscience.

3. DOES IT ABRIDGE MY INTEGRITY? My spiritual beliefs influence my willingness to use swearwords. So does my concept of what it means to use my talent worthily. Some words I simply won't use. But I'll use most of the words on Carlin's notorious list when they fit the character and situation.

Writing requires fine-tuning; paying due attention. A writer knows when words–obscene or otherwise–just plain work. Alan Russell, author of The Fat Innkeeper, which won the Critics' Choice Award and The Lefty (for humor in a mystery), agrees.

"In that book, when my protagonist encounters a beached whale at the oceanfront hotel where he works, he exclaims, “Call me f*****g Ishmael!' I never second-guessed myself on that because it seemed absolutely right to me."

So, as advised by Hunt above--and just like in my use of curse words in my memoirs--if it’s appropriate for the character and the situation in which they’re used, it’s not a bad thing to use them. But if you’re spouting off like Tony Soprano, it may be a good idea to tone it down a tad.

What’s your opinion? Would you use curse words? Are you offended by their use in writing? When, if ever, is it okay to use them? Let’s hear it. Keep it clean here on the Blog though, ladies! ;o)

Happy writing!


Anonymous said...

F*^# yeah, Chynna! Ha ha! Just kidding. I use swear words as they fit the character, and am never offended by foul language. I think most writers do the same. It would just seem...odd for a character like the great Tony Soparno not to drop an f-bomb, and totally out of place for a June Cleaver TO swear. I'm having to walk that fine line in writing my novel for young adults. I feel it needs to be realistic, but still palatable for the parents of my target audience. I'm thinking nothing strong than a few s-bombs, maybe...Great post!

PS - My little book was finally published!

Anonymous said...

Wow, too bad this thing doesn't have spell check! I didn't even understand what I wrote.

Chynna said...

Hey Marci! Your post was worries. ;o)

I know what you mean about writing for youths. I too am planning a YA book--on a touchy subject. And although you want the book to be authentic and readable for kids that age, you don't want it to be "unpalatable" to the parents.

BTW: Congrats on your book being published. YAY!

Thanks for posting.


Angela Mackintosh said...

This is a great post Chynna ;-)

In my fiction writing my characters do swear quite a bit, which may seem odd to WOW! readers since we prefer not to swear on the site. It has its place in fiction most definitely, but I think the most important thing to consider is your audience.

For instance, in publications such as magazines or ezines (non fiction articles), I prefer not to swear because of the audience. There are ratings on the internet, believe it or not, and when you submit a website to search engines you also submit your rating at the same time. We have a "general" rating, meaning everybody from kids to grandparents can come to our site and read our articles. It would be irresponsible of me to go ahead and let f-bombs and s-bombs fly on our site. But, words that are allowed on regular daytime TV and radio are perfectly fine. The occasional female dog, the other word for donkey, and darn's cousin are okay in context. But too much of it in non fiction makes for lazy writing.

Although in nonfiction books, memoirs, etc. it's necessary if it's a quote or the way the person speaks. Like in your memoir, Chynna, it would be strange if you omitted it. The reader couldn't accurately get the picture you were trying to get across.

Now in fiction, once again, you have to consider your audience. Who is your book appealing to? Is it a humorous romp with gal pals where anything goes? Is it literary? Well written literary prose can make anything sound poetic! And of course, if it's for YA or kids, then you'd have to tone down the language. Language and content are the main differences between adult fiction and YA or children's. There's also word count etc. but that's a different subject.

Gee, I just rambled on!

Oh, and Marci - congrats on your book!! I'm planning on posting something about it tomorrow. ;-)



Anonymous said...

Wow, thank you Angela!!

Sue said...

I love your posts, Chynna! I think this is a great idea. I also agree. For your memoir, you have no choice; to be genuine, the "real" language has to be included. But for nonfiction articles and interviews, like those that WOW! is known for, curse words just have no place.

Thanks for your keen insight, as always!

Anonymous said...

I think swearing is a necessary part of your story if it's a necessary part of your story. Just as you wouldn't omit a strange character trait that's essential to your plot, using curse words shouldn't scare you if they belong where they are. Especially in a memoir, omitting the words would be a disservice I think to the actual events.

That said, I effing love cursing in my prose and poetry alike. As long as it's not "eff eff eff this and eff that", I think it adds an urgency to the dialog. Especially since I tend to write teenagers and twenty-somethings for the most part, it just naturally flows into their dialog.

Great post!!

Annette said...

It's always been a feather mucking dilemma. Chynna, I agree completely. Obscenities must suit the character and sometimes, the golly-gee dialogue just doesn't cut it.

My memoir has a few f-bombs and I had an interior layout designer (bless her religious soul) suggest that I either replace the offensive words with something more mild, or clearly list an "R" rating on the cover of the book to warn readers of the potentially eye-scalding content.

Um...yeeeeah. I'll get right on that.

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed my article in Writer's Digest, but would appreciate it if you would correct my name: it's Morgan Hunt, not Hunter. Thanks.

Chynna said...

Morgan, as someone whose name is constantly misspelled and mispronounced, please accept my apologies.

What's funny is I spelled the name correctly the first time I mentioned the article then, for whatever reason, decided to add an "er" to your last name. =/ I must not have had enough "brain food" that day. LOL

Again, I'm so sorry. Corrections made!


Anonymous said...

I know this is an old artcle but many writers might still google in the question to 'swear or not to swear'. I teach creative writing and my students keep 'flogging' the 'must write real' angle. Get a grip! Characters in fiction are not real! Part of made up stories. There is nothing elegant about a writer who can't find a way to create a character without having to use swear words. Don't forget - you are subjecting the reader to the swear words and foul language - not the person the character is talking to - because that person is made up! Not real! Get it - the reader is the only person who is real! The writer has to transmit a concept to the reader through the use of words. Reading lots of swear words is unpleasant and halts the flow of reading, as they are expressions, not meaning. A good wordsmith says 'Kane swore ferociously. Every word hammered out with venom and directly insulting. On and on he went until Sylvia crumpled from the horror.'Less horrible to read than 'Fuck, fuck fuck'. As a reader I don't want to read it, I just want to know what the character is about. It is hard work - what a cop out saying swearing is the only way. If I want real I can go to the footy.

Cher'ley said...

I was really enjoying your answer until I got to the swearing part. I guess I figure we all know how to say and type those words and I am one of the readers and I and my whole family buy a lot of books and none of us enjoy any kind of swear words. I don't believe they are ever necessary in real life or in fiction. So, I try to avoid reading anything that includes them.

It's hard sometimes and since I'm still learning about the craft of writing, I read some books that include swear words, (skipping or trying to replace the words with less harsh words, as often as possible) but I would never buy those books for enjoyment.

I think people in real life as well as fiction should be more creative.

BTW, I understand when people are in such a habit of using these words, I used to be one of the worst, but I overcame it years ago. So I try not to judge, but I sure don't have to spend my hard earned money on anything I find offensive or non-creative. Surprisingly, I know bunches and bunches of people who feel the same way I do.

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