Five years ago I wrote a post about how I always avoid profanities in fiction, declaring my stance against including swear words and sex scenes in my books. To begin with, let me just say I’m still fixed upon the non-inclusion of sex (except maybe in fade-to-black-situations), but recently I’ve found myself budging when it comes to swearing.
When before I didn’t think they have any merit, I realise now that there are some situations that call for the occasional f-bomb. When before I thought I could find squeaky clean alternatives, I instead found myself struggling with authenticity. Try as I could to make things work without resorting to profanity, it just wasn’t working this time.
I’m working on a book (currently) titled “Mail Order Thief”, and my main character is as cynical and rude and angry as they come. When I set out to write him, to draw the outlines of his character, I tried to wash his mouth with soap but he spat it out and snapped at me. He was not amused, not in the slightest, that I was trying to drown out his voice just so I wouldn’t bruise my ideals.
It’s a tricky subject. I personally don’t swear often, especially not in the company of others. If I do you know I’m really, really irritated. I’ve seen a lot of readers who actually avoid books that have any form of profanity… I mean, in my first book, I had a couple of people point out my occasional use of the tamest word out there – “Damn”. So what does one do in this case? Do they avoid profanity altogether so as not to alienate a portion of readers? Or do they try to be as authentic as possible?
Where can a person use profanity and avoid any backlash?
- To set a character apart – using my own novel as a case study, everyone is rather civil; in contrast, my protagonist – damaged and aggressive – tends to occasionally use profanity. Not to say that every third word he uses is “bad”, but every once in a while he’ll be so annoyed he’ll drop an f-bomb.
- To set the tone – the novel may be set in the ghetto or a prison, where you cannot expect people to be exactly polite. It would actually seem weird if you didn’t include profanity.
- To show anger – especially with characters who never swear. True, you could pass it off by writing, “S/he swore loudly”, but I feel it wouldn’t have the same effect as a casually dropped “F***!”
- To write expressive dialogue – I think one trick here is to only include profanity in dialogue (or monologues), rather than the prose itself, not only because it doesn’t make sense, but also because it cheapens your words and message.
And after all that, you still won’t please everyone. Hell, you won’t please everyone regardless of what you do, so why don’t you just do what feels right to you?
How do you feel about profanity in fiction? What are some other situations where you feel it would be acceptable to use profanity in your writing?