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Profanity in Fiction

October 25, 2010

Profanity in Fiction
(or Cruk, #$^&, and Holy Rusted Metal, Batman!)

Ah, cursing. It’s a rather fun topic I’ve had rolling about in my brain for a few weeks. It’s just been such a roller-coaster the last couple weeks that I’m only now getting to actually writing it!

What is appropriate, when it comes to language in a book? There are obvious concerns out there about censorship and creating age-appropriate content in fiction. While I won’t get into a huge debate about censorship and who is responsible for what when it comes to what fiction falls into younger readers’ hands, I’ll at least mention that we authors do, of course, take our audience into consideration when writing a story.

When you’re writing a story for adults, it’s assumed that a level of maturity exists that allows for more colorful language to be used. In those stories, I feel profanity can actually lend depth to a character, showing the reader what really gets a character upset. It can even subtly imply a socioeconomic background or upbringing. The words that come out of a character’s mouth are important, and I think cursing is certainly a part of that.

On the flip side of the coin, you have young adult fiction, where the lines start to get a little blurry as to what is expected in the way of cursing. There are so many views on the subject that I could never go into them all without sending the word count of this entry straight through the stratosphere. My opinion on the matter is rather simple: It isn’t about the readers, but the characters. A writer isn’t responsible for everyone that gets a hold of their work; they are responsible for knowing their characters. To me, that means knowing if they would curse all the time, only when they’re stressed out, or not at all (among many other things, obviously). Having a clear vision of the character will translate to the page. Cursing is only one small part of the greater whole, but it can be one element that makes a character relatable on the fundamental level of basic vocabulary. It can also be flat-out entertaining!

So, assuming there is profanity littered throughout literature, we can take a look at ourselves and our society based on our reactions to all the swearing, yes? I know, I know… This is where everyone groans that I’m being too thought-provoking during what’s supposed to be a fun post. Sorry, but I can’t help myself! This is when we get to ask ourselves if we have a different reaction to a male character cursing up a storm compared to a female character. Is there a gender bias? Are female characters expected to speak more demurely? Do we as readers buy into those social norms, or do we find it even more entertaining when a female character curses because of that social taboo? There is an infinite number of questions we could ask ourselves about profanity in fiction, and I think some of them are rather fun to discuss!

Personally? I was raised to not curse at all, and my parents were probably rather proud until my sister hit high school and started swearing left and right. *laughs* At that point, she was a bad influence on me—I am four years her junior, after all—and I began cursing as well when I was really angry. I still find myself biting my tongue at times in front of my relatives. In fact, I never cursed around my grandparents until they cursed around me. I know that’s rather silly, but as long as they censored themselves, I extended them the same courtesy. I’m twenty-four years old now, and I definitely curse in everyday life. I share all this just to explain a bit of my background and let it be contrasted by my characters.

Like I mentioned before, I think the amount of cursing in a book has everything to do with the individual characters. Aric in Rachmaninoff curses a lot. He’s a teenager at the beginning of the book, and one who wants to be as rebellious as possible when not under the close watch of his conservative parents to boot. I can’t imagine an Aric who wouldn’t use the word ‘fuck’ in every possible way, especially when pissed off. You have him played side by side with Nikola, however, who comes from a very different time period as a vampire and, therefore, uses profanity quite sparingly. Nikola is the kind of man who thinks there is always a better way to articulate oneself than swearing like a sailor. He is refined, and it shows, especially when he is set beside Aric. The contrast between them is given a bit more depth by their different stances on profanity. It’s just one way Saundra and I strove to entertain as well as show opposites attracting.

Writers: Do you have a particular stance on using profanity in your fiction?

Readers: Do you enjoy a story or character more or less based on their use of profanity?

For those of you out there wondering what ways writers can deal with profanity in their fiction, I’ve compiled a little list with examples! Here are some common ways to deal with cursing in fiction if you’re looking to avoid the straight forward, no apologies approach I usually take. Enjoy!

1) Using different words in place of curse words

You know what I’m talking about… those people who say ‘Gosh Darnit!’ or ‘Fudge!’ in place of god dammit and fuck. Examples in entertainment are unlimited, but a couple that make me laugh are ‘Son of a Nutcracker!’ (movie Elf, 2003), which was appropriate to Buddy’s Christmas-Elf character, and ‘Holy crow!’ (Twilight Saga books), which seems completely inappropriate for Bella Swan with the prolific angst that shrouds her tumultuous adolescence. (See? Even alternatives can be entertaining!)

2) Using type-speak

I know this isn’t terribly commonplace in fiction, but as we move into a more technologically driven world, where text-messaging is leading to more and more car accidents, I figured it was worth mentioning. Common examples of type-speak profanity include STFU, WTF, and OMFG. With type-speak, it’s usually an acronym used to save space. People do occasionally use the actual acronyms in casual speech, though, which is why it makes the list.

3) Substituting ‘really bad’ words for just ‘kinda bad’ words

Vague enough for you? What I mean is the way you can sometimes tone down profanity by using other curse words. Examples: “Don’t be such a fucktard.” → “Don’t be such an ass.” or “I was supposed to have the report in by five? Oh fuck!” → “Oh balls!” (Yes, I’ve seen it used.) “Shit. That sounds terrible.” → “Crap. That sounds terrible.”

4) The power of the Ellipsis

Sometimes the profanity can be completely eliminated by the use of an ellipsis. Examples: “What the…?” or “You sold a reverberating carbonizer with mutate capacity to an unlicensed cephalopoid, Jeebs, you piece of…” (Men in Black, 1997)

5) Using make-believe words

Don’t want curse words mucking up your narrative or dialogue, but don’t want to use any of the previous? If all else fails, make up your own words! It’s worked for Star Trek, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Firefly, and Mork & Mindy, so just get creative and off you go! Here are some examples: buck, cruk, drek, frinx, gorram, shazbot, swut, and zark. (For a nice, long list: )

6) Using symbols in place of the profanity

As a last resort, you can always go comic book style and use symbols in place of curse words, but beware! There are actually rules. Don’t use any punctuation symbols, and be sure you use the same number of symbols as there would be characters in your curse word. Another style of this would be to use * to bleep out key letters or entire curse words. Example: Fuck → @#^&, Dipshit → #*%&@^$, Shithead → ****head or sh*thead.

What’s your approach to cursing in fiction? Did I miss any options?

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