Revisiting the Swearing Question

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.

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(Credit: Uncommon Goods)

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? 

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13 thoughts on “Revisiting the Swearing Question

  1. It’s funny, because I personally don’t swear in front of others either–only my husband and even then it’s infrequent. But I let my characters swear if it fits the story and their personality. So I’ll have more swearing in some books than others. Like you say, sometimes a curse word has more of a dramatic effect. But when they’re just tossed into the narrative, I agree, not very entertaining.

  2. You and I continue to have similar thought processes. I seem to be in the same position.

    I’m writing a book with a male lead, and even though he’s not a man prone to swearing, he does use a few swear words, and has once (so far) dropped the f-bomb. In this one instance, the word added to a humor moment. The humor wouldn’t work without it.

    I worry a tad about launching this book, because all of my previous writing is pretty squeaky clean, and present fans may object. But I’m enjoying this story so much, I’m just going to put it out there and let the chips fall where they may.

    • The important thing here is to be true to your characters. While you may turn off some readers (and I fully expect to do that with my own book at the very least), at least you will know that you’ve written genuinely authentic people, yeah? And who knows, your more “mature” tone might attract new readers too!

      • I had a friend like that. He pretty much replaced the phrase “uh” with the f-bomb.
        “So I went to…f-ing…the grocery store for…f-ing…, aw, what was it, f-ing…Mountain Dew, but I couldn’t find any…f-ing…Mountain Dew, so I went to the…f-ing…manager…”
        Repeat ad nauseum

  3. I’ve only got a couple of swear words in my novels, but they have to be there otherwise the character who says them wouldn’t seem authentic to me. Just do what that character tells you Zen! 😀

  4. So interesting to find someone similar to me. I’m not averse to
    swearing, but when it’s every other word, it just gets old real fast. Because it really comes across as fake / contrived. The sex scenes . . . it’s almost a necessity now. But a friend once told me what she liked about my writing was the absence of those very scenes. My problem with them is, they’re almost cliche, because so expected. If there are more of us, this could go somewhere.

    • I agree. An occasional curse has a much bigger impact in the long run. As for sex scenes, even if they are a necessity, I don’t see why they have to go into so much detail. One could just start off the scene then allow it to fade to black, and people can use their imagination if they want to, haha.

  5. It’s the fake “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” element I have problems with in this. There are some books where the sex scenes are necessary (and I’m not talking about that worthless piece of dreck that came out several years ago and is forced upon the cinematic masses ever Valentine’s Day). For the rest, be creative, not lazy. And trust your reader. Like you said, fade to black or something.

Talk to me! I won't bite. Unless you're made of chocolate, then I can't give any promises.

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