Friday, December 2, 2011

Aspiring Advice: I Don't Curse - I Swear!

Remember those themed advice months I used to have a while back? Those were fun. Can we do it again?

Lately, I've been asked about content in writing, what is appropriate, and the such. It's made me think about what I put in my writing and what I read and watch. There's much to discuss. So this month, I'm dedicating Fridays to otherwise ... dicey  topics. Ready? Get set! Go! It's Dicey December!

So what's the deal with swearing? They're just words. Sticks and stones, right? Not for everyone. Regardless, we have them, new ones are invented all the time, and there's nothing we can do about it. Or can we?

If you and I have a chance to hang out, you'll find that I don't really swear. Not in the conventional sense.

I'm more like this guy ...

(Captain Haddock - Best. Insults. Ever!)

My writing, on the other hand, is a different story (pun alert!). I've written my fair share of choice and colorful words in various shorts and works in progress. But wait! I personally choose not to swear, but I do in my writing? Does this make me a prude? A hypocrite? I don't think so. This is because I've reached an understanding:

I don't swear. My characters do.

There's this mindset out there that an author's words/ works reflect who they are. If this is true, remind me to steer clear of anyone who's written about serial killers.

My characters are their own person. They can say whatever they want. They're not me. 

Am I saying you should swear? In your writing? That's entirely up to you. It all depends on how you want your characters to be presented and the market you're aiming at. Young kids? Keep it G. Adult? Sky's the limit. Most of the time, the role model has a pretty clean mouth. When they do swear, you pay more attention.

Here's a real life example. I used to play water polo.

 (No horses in water polo - sorry.)

Most of my teammates swore a lot. It didn't bother me. It got old fast. It became expected. Our team captain, on the other hand, never did. Then he got hit in the face by accident during practice. He let out a storm! No one said a word. Most of us were afraid for our lives!

His swearing was effective. Appropriate, even! He just got hit in the face. Water polo balls are hard!

Swearing is often a tool in storytelling as well. Ever noticed how really unlikeable characters curse every other word, make racial slurs, and/or sexually harass? It tags them as ignorant jerks that you'd like to see left handcuffed on the roof of a city building.

The Walking Dead's Merle Dixon - Good example!

Oh! But if your villain doesn't swear? You know it's best not to mess! They're much too busy thinking of how to kill you and make your sister evil at the same time.

What happens if heroes swear a lot? They know when to say it and at what extreme, often getting tagged as rough and tough. In some cases, anti-heroes. If they never swear? Well. They're pretty much omnipotent. 

Still skittish? Make your own! James Dashner did this in his Maze Runner Trilogy to excellent effect. But please. Please! If you make your own swearing, it must have a context. All "bad words" derive from something.

I still don't know what "frak" means ... 

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. Swearing is a part of society whether we like it or not. Gratuitous swearing turns me off (everyone shares the same vocabulary and rate of expletives). I've put down a few books because of it. On the other hand, you have Ender's Game. Kids swear like the Buggers are coming tomorrow. I can never get enough of that book.

Again. Remember your market. I loaned a proofed copy of The Dragon's Heart to a young reader once. She really liked it. She had only one complaint:

"I didn't like the swearing."


The MC said "damn." Once. That was it! And since it's YA, I'm sure some might think that's not enough.

Like searching for that perfect verb, swear words ought to be chosen with equal discretion. If you must censor yourself ... Mr. Cosby has something to say about that.

(Sorry. Long video. Skip to 3:50)

Dang. I better leave it at that before I say something I'll frigg'n regret. Have a blasted awesome weekend!

How about you? What's your take on swearing in your writing?

I'm David, and soap doesn't taste very good.


  1. Maggie Stiefvater recently asked on her twitter and facebook if the "F" word in YA was appropriate. It was pretty split down the middle. I don't mind it if it is contextually sound. I can't imagine a group of hard core military personnel getting ambushed in Vietnam saying fiddlesticks. That would be laughable. However, I do think too many authors are letting their characters mouths run amok lately without justifiable cause.

    Great post.

  2. I completely agree! Not swearing makes Darth Vader even scarier! Awesome post :)

  3. My favorite swear phrase is from Elizabeth Peter's character Emerson. He says, "You son of an incontinent camel." Creative swearing totally cracks me up.

  4. An authors works DO reflect them. I'm sorry, but they aren't independent of you. They come from you. You create them. They have no existence apart from you.

    This doesn't mean that a person who writes about serial killers is themselves serial killer material. But it probably does mean that, at least, they have an interest in the darkest corners of the human experience. There are many ways in which your work can reflect on who you are.

    The idea that you can create something that is totally independent of you is silly.

  5. I write YA but it has to feel authentic. In my Contemporary YA there are a few swear words, but they're there when they're really needed.

    In my Fantasy YA I make up swear words. That is so fun!

  6. I swear, and it increases when I'm driving.

    Speaking of ENDER'S GAME, the rumor yesterday was that the kid from the just-released HUGO is going to play Ender Wiggin and Harrison Ford will be Commander Hyrum Graff. Both rumors, but still. 2013!!!

  7. I was always a fan of how David Eddings implied swearing but never came out and had the characters say the naughty language. Kept things interesting as a reader because I filled in what naughty words I knew at the time.

    On the other end, it's really hard to read books aloud that have cuss words every few words (at least it is for me when I don't cuss that often).

  8. You hit a lot of good points. If the swearing fits the character (and the genre and the audience) it works. I don't mind reading it if it fits.
    I don't use much swearing in my own writing. For one, it doesn't fit my genre - space opera in the style of Star Wars. I want it to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. And I do think it's a bit of a reflection on the author.
    Hot topic right now!

  9. All very good points! I think I'm going to have to mull this one over for a while :)

  10. I totally agree with you on this. I swear on occasion, but only around the house (we have no kids to worry about picking up the habit). I thing that it's important to be true to our characters and if it's fitting that one of your characters have a touch of the caca mouth, well, so be it. I'm careful in writing because I write for a YA crowd and I have no wish to be a bad example, but every now and again my characters will use some of the less frightening expletives (no f-bombs, whatsoever). I like the Merle Dixon handcuffed to the roof bit in your post - made me laugh. As did the 'frak' mention (big Battlestar fan). Thanks for sharing your thoughts! =)

  11. I don't usually swear, but once I'm behind the wheel, whatch out. Oy! My characters swear only if it fits them, and then I always pause before I type the f-word. I look around to make sure no one is watching and then quickly type it in. Heehee. Great post! <3

  12. I may have opened a whole other can of worms with one's writing reflecting who they are. Humor fail. Might make for a good topic later.

    We all have very different ideas about how things work and not everyone shares the same world view. I appreciate that not everyone sees the same thing as I do. Horizons can't be broadened otherwise. :)

  13. I 100% totally agree with you! I am not my characters. They need their own voice. Not this thirty something washed up mommy living in sin city! And your right about another thing, I write about serial killers and I think I'm okay still???

  14. I think a person's choice on swearing in novels more often than not has nothing to do with style and everything to do with sales.

    So I would ask them...are you wanting to be a good writer? Or do you just want to make money and have the broadest appeal?

  15. I usually don't swear in my books, since I don't swear personally. BUT, sometimes there is no other appropriate word when something crappy happens to my characters. You can't just say, "darn it." You know? ;)

  16. I am in Camp Minimal when it comes so swearing. If it can be said a different way, then say it a different way. But when it is fitting - which is not every other word - then use it.

    And Frak (or frack as I use it) is the BEST EVER!!! Okay, maybe not the best but I like it over other options. If you can use friggin, you can use frackin.

  17. This is awesome David! I am totally looking forward to "dicey december!" I think swearing can be effective too. I probably won't fill my books with it, but when used in the perfect situation it can be a fabulous tool. I should probably be more of a prude, but I'm not. O-well. This was awesome! Looking forward to more!

  18. Great post. This has been something I've mulled over too! For me, I try to have as little swearing as possible, but like others have said, sometimes it just really fits the situation. I have also made up swear words for my YA fantasy, and it was fun! I enjoyed the made-up words in Across the Universe.

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  20. You've hit on an important truth here: you aren't your characters. What they do and who they are is separate from you.
    For instance, if you write a realistic bad guy who rapes and kills women, are you him? Heck no! Sweet, laid back David is not that character, but you still wrote him. To me, it takes a skilled writer to write out of his/her comfort zone.

  21. 1-I totally agree with your take on this.
    2-You are not your characters, and they WILL do things that you don't.
    3-The story about your polo captain really sums up swearing for me.
    4-Can't wait for the rest of these topics.

  22. "There's this mindset out there that an author's words/ works reflect who they are. If this is true, remind me to steer clear of anyone who's written about serial killers."

    Kinda answers that write-what-you-know question doesn't it?


  23. Exactly! This is an excellent post, and I completely agree. Authors do not necessarily condone their characters' actions. People have such a hard time distinguishing between the two.

    Is there a place for clean YA? Yes. Is there a place for swearing/drinking/drugs/sex in YA? Yes.

  24. I personally don't swear, and I don't like to read it or hear it in films, etc., unless there's a particularly good reason (a bit like your team captain).

    I've heard a lot of teenagers swear every other word, and it's like they don't possess a vocabulary. We have such varied and interesting words, to rely on swear words for the sake of it seems pointless to me, and turns me off a character/story.

  25. I love this post. This is something I've thought about a lot. I don't swear. And I know that my daughters will put down a book they otherwise love if there is swearing in it. But once in a while my characters want to swear. I try to gag them, but you know how that goes. The muse rules in the end. Does that make my a hypocrite? I have struggled with this. Really appreciate you sharing your thoughts here.

  26. I'm with you, David! My MC swears more than I do, but I'm sure some readers will assume her dialogue is an extension of my personal vocabulary. I guess it's just one of those unavoidable assumptions. Great points here! :)

  27. I don't swear; some of my characters do, but occasionally I gloss it over by just saying "s/he swore/cursed" or something along those lines.

    Great post!

  28. I like to make up my own curse words, but really, sometimes it's the most appropriate thing for a character to say in the scene, the moment. Less is more though, don't you agree?

  29. I totally agree with you - it depends on the character. I use a sprinkling of cus words in both of my books, one far more than the other, because that character is much tougher and more foul-mouthed.

  30. I don't swear. My four letter f-word is usually fart. But I have used it in one of my books before, but edited it out when I changed it from YA to MG and it was the mc, and he wasn't one to spout off a curse. (He was when he was 16, but he's not anymore) I think it's all about timing and if it's appropriate or if it comes out of nowhere. If you're using a swear just to swear, then it doesn't make sense. As with all the other dialog.

  31. Great post. I'm not 100% against swearing in fiction but I haven't used it in my fiction. Personally I've been able thus far to find ways to convey the same raw emotion in my scenes without using swear words. I also have a hard time with fiction that contains a lot of swearing because it limits the people to whom I could recommend that book.

  32. I think curse words should be replaced with Shakespearean insults. Like:

    Thou arrogant common-kissing fustilarian!

  33. Aloha David,

    This is a great post, and I was intrigued to hear your views, and then read all the comments above me.

    I am, however, going to swing the boat around and say I do swear, (never in front of the kids) and it's because I grew up in a place where the F... bomb, mixed with "ing", formed the two "extra" sylables in un*******believable.

    You ask 10, 100, or 1,000 people who were *born and raised* in Ireland, if they swear, and the majority - if they are honest - will say they do.

    Does that mean my characters swear? In the memoir I'm co-writing, it's not my voice, it's that of Donald Braswell, so it's basically a swear-free zone.

    In my fiction, however - I don't know yet. All I do know is a band of scallywags and superheroes are waiting patiently for me to finish WIP...

    What happens next is up to them:)

  34. Interesting post. If the character or scene calls for it, I'll write it in and not even think twice about it. As a reader, it doesn't really bother me. :)

  35. In my writing: Nada. MG and all. In other's-- I'm fine with it... usually. Not a fan of the f bomb pretty much ever. Other times, I think it really shows a lot about the character. You have to be careful, though. Yeah, you might say that your character is the type of person who can't say a sentence without an expletive, but that doesn't mean I'll like your character enough to keep reading about them...

  36. This is a really interesting topic. I tend to avoid in my writing, because I think it appeals to a wider audience (and I generally don't swear so writing it feels strange.) However, if I had a character that I could visualize swearing, I would play around with it a little.

  37. I love your story about the team captain getting hit in the face. That's how I approach swearing for most of my characters - only when needed, so that it actually HAS impact! Even though I'm not a big swearer in real life, I can think of several literary examples where even the worst swears were 100% appropriate for the situation.

    Also, gotta admit I love the made up cuss words. Sometimes, I find myself muttering "Frell!" and "Light!" :)

  38. Poor team captain...He had a good reason to swear.

    I'm short and cute so when I swear out loud (rarely) it's more comedic than effective.

    I don't mind swear words in when reading, too much can lessen the effect. When writing it feels weird and I prefer insults. You can get quite creative those.

    On the topic of 'I'm not my characters' I write high fantasy so I can't even do most of the things my characters do.

  39. i LOVE when writers are creative with their swearing. So entertaining to read. If characters swear all the times, you lose interest, no swearing at all make the protagonists sound a little contrived. They are human. They are allowed to slip. So the right dose at the right time and you have a winner.