Random thoughts on our impending doom and everyday life, courtesy of a Romance Writer who occasionally feels the need to talk like a Sailor.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

In defence of foul language...

Please take the 18+ warning seriously and be elsewhere. Same goes if you're easily offended by bad language...

There have been some discussions of late regarding the use of swear words in writing and social media which interests me. I’m not convinced every second word on Facebook or Twitter needs to be 'fuck' but I do feel this word has its place and I get a little riled up when people dismiss it out of hand. Same goes for the rest of the naughty word hoard. And maybe this is a sensitive subject for me. Say, in the way that censorship is a sensitive issue for anyone with something to say. I believe that if you don’t use swearing, you risk not being authentic. Let’s look at the arguments...

1.       Does not using swear words water down your character?

Remember the film, ‘On Golden Pond’, where the teenager swears and keeps using the word ‘bullshit’? And Henry Fonda’s crotchety old bugger tells the kid it’s a good word? The word acts as a link, bridging the age gap between these two characters. Henry Fonda’s character is a tell-it-like-it-is person who sees much bullshit around him and is more than happy to label it as such. The use of the word strengthens the portrayal of that character and the commonality he shares with a jaded teenager. You couldn’t have told the story without the swear word; there is simply no translation of ‘bullshit’ that would have served the same purpose.

Let’s take a character called Bob. Now, our mate Bob is a Marine (because I write romance and we like our Marines, yes we do) stamping the ground, grumping and groaning because he gets shot in the left buttock. We’ll even make it friendly fire to really rub salt in the wound.

Careful or he's gonna smite you.
“*)#%$#@^&!!!” said Bob to his friend Reg who just accidentally shot him in the arse.

So, what do you imagine that ‘%$#@^&’ to be? Hmm? If Bob just yodels and yowls and hisses then we’re not exactly being true to that character, are we? We’re showing his anger and extreme discomfort, but we’re also slapping a gag order on him. If I’ve picked up that book because I want to read about Bob the Marine, then I don’t want him in measured doses. I want him shown in bright, sparkly rainbow colours that speak of truth and depth of character. I want him to be believable, reacting appropriately to whatever the story throws at him.

2.       Is swearing in theme with what the book is about?

In erotic tales, if your characters are already getting up to steamy, kinky type action operating outside the norms of etiquette and acceptable public acts then the swearing will just be a part of that. So much so that misuse of the right words can be jarring for the reader.  His  ‘male member’ might be his ‘throbbing manhood’ but if you can’t also call it a cock or a dick then you should maybe not be writing what you’re writing. Terminology matters.  Purple prose has been the death of more racy romances than you can imagine. ‘Heat seeking missiles’ and ‘stallion meat’ have no place in books of any worth. Or any other books written. Ever. Or on dirty alley walls. And we’re past the ‘quivering bosom’ stage, aren’t we? Because frankly, if they’re quivering, you need to put on a sports bra and be done with it.

3.       Is swearing in theme with the world that’s been created?

In Deadwood the characters were mostly rolling with a more polite society’s archaic, flowery language – but to counter balance this we had the various whores and nasty types enjoying the lawless atmosphere there. If Deadwood is defined as the place law does not touch then it would have been inauthentic to pussyfoot around the way the populace of that world would talk. The leader of the Chinese community of Deadwood, Wu, only knew two words of English,  ‘Swearengen’ and ‘cocksucker’. But he could put across a wealth of meaning with just those two words.

Ever watch ‘the Wire’? It was a wonderful show dealing with inner city crime and the police task force trying to reduce same. Well, there was a certain scene commonly known as the ‘murder investigation’ scene where the word 'fuck' was said thirty-eight times. It is pretty much the only word said and in so many different contexts that the one word leaves you no doubt as to exactly what they’re talking about. That’s not lazy writing; that extraordinary writing. And you can watch it here if you don't believe me... 

How’s about inventing a language to circumvent the colourful language barrier? Firefly did it with zest by spouting Mandarin. Battlestar Galactica also had their own curses.

4.       Is it just a cheap kick?

There is a genuine reason a writer would use these words; they have clout. While overuse in the wrong context can be facile and annoying (who hasn’t been to a rock concert where every slurred line of speech is abundant with naughty words and the crowd cheers wildly throughout). How cool! And edgy! And shit!? But equally well, it’s pointless and over used. So yes, swearing has its limits. It can get well hackneyed.  In one episode of Game of Thrones the word ‘cunt’ was used four times in different scenes. By the end of it we were all rolling our eyes. Boring! So no, don’t throw it around with giddy abandon. It can get stale. In Game of Thrones it started to stick out as cool word of the week as opposed to a tool for conveying character and mood. In Deadwood, Calamity Jane would have dropped the c-bomb four times in a single scene but it never stuck out as unnecessary. It was her word and it reflected her character.

But to rule it out completely is to limit your writing.  Shakespeare might have eschewed such words but Harold Pinter put them in their place, and rightfully so. (Of course, Shakespeare also invented half the English language so I dare I say, the rules do not apply. If you have that sort of license you don’t need to swear.)

One of the main arguments against swearing is that if it is not usually used in that context and in that type of story-telling then it can jump the reader or the audience out of the story. The reader will be startled, shifting from being in the world you’ve created to thinking about the author using a particular word. In other words, you’ve lost them baby. The continuity in whatever magic you made that had them turning the page is cut. Respect your audience.

In all, there are reasons to be careful in your use of offensive language, but to rule it out completely is stupidity. There are important reasons especially based on authenticity to character, to story and world for using such words.


  1. Tentacle Porn!?!? I'm afraid to ask. LOL

    1. Dee Carney said on Twitter that she'd been dared to write one. I asked what the hell she was talking about. Yeah, Tentacle Porn. Some wacky sub-genre of Manga but it dates back 190 years to this wood print. So there you go. The Fisherman's Wife's Dream. You're welcome.

  2. Deadwood and The Wire... Two of my favourite shows. I believe that the scene in the Wire that you are referring to was a reenactment of an actual murder scene done by an actual homicide detective that the writers knew or followed around (Castle style) or had been told about.

    The character Snoop from the Wire is an example of authenticity. It really makes a massive difference to the quality of the work.

    I agree appropriate use of vulgarity can be powerful. But as you say at the end there the reverse is equally wrong, swearing for the sake of swearing is as inexcusable as not swearing when its called for.

    1. That is so cool if it was based on an actual event. It's extremely powerful. The authenticity of The Wire was a large part of what made is so impressive.

      Yes, there is a balance and care is needed. What I object to is people intimating it should be ruled out entirely. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Goran.