The Pros and Cons of Harsh Language, Additionally, Hooks

I'm writing my hook and came to a decision. Thought I'd throw the question at you all. Perhaps as part of a few posts where we can discuss writing fundamentals.

What are the pros and cons of swearing in your fiction? How it relates to the people you want reading your work. For me especially, given that I may self-narrate as a side-project, it theoretically becomes more of an issue. For Dirge, I did what I felt like. I felt that it offset some of the dialogue, which could seem unnaturally serious.

Now, for Chosen Shackles, dark humor is going to be a major aspect. Irreverance. I'm writing my hook and I get to set the tone. "You know what any person needs when they could be dying at four in the am? Spicy noodles." Regardless of whether it fits in that particular wording.

Now, for example, in the case of Rick and Morty, swearing was so integral to the tone that they have it there bleeeeeped out. So, what did you go with and why? How does it matter to you as writers and readers? Did anyone take the route of made up curses? Those can be fun.

For myself, I'm between wanting to do something different, avoiding them as a crutch, but also feeling they may be necessary to a story with much thematically in common with the example above. Swearing seems to be something you have to go more out of your way to avoid than include, in any story set in serious times.

That's all. Let me know how you based your decisions, and thanks!

In general, my thinking is that the best use of swearwords is to help you in differentiating characters. Like, they are all just text on the reader's screen, yeah? So giving them distinct speech patterns (including swearing) is a good way to keep them separate in the reader's mind.

Personally I don't tend to think about that kind of stuff alot. That has three reasons.

First there is the cultural difference - swearing and cursing simply isn't that big a deal in these parts. I have never ever encountered one instance of bleeping cursing out in my native language. So for me it's neither an issue nor would it have significant impact in the market I aim at. I think.

Third I tend to write darker stuff that isn't aimed at teenagers or kids anyway - people who would object to cursing would probably not read it in the first place. I don't write 'safe' fiction where no bad things happen. I (try to) write horror. Figure a bit of cursing once in a while actually makes the tone lighter.

But that only goes for me. I probably would consider it more carefully if I'd write something aimed at a younger audience or one looking for simple escapism, romance and happy endings. So I'm firmly with Drew on this one.

Personally, I would never write profanities outside of dialogue. I feel there needs to be a certain professionalism to an author, and swear words ruin that goal.

Within the dialogue, however? Depends an awful lot on the story. I write for adults, and if they can't handle the occasional profanity, then they're far too emotionally fragile to pick up what I'm laying down.

That said- there's such a thing as going too far. The line between gritty and gratuitous is an ephemeral one to say the least.

Swearing is the linguistic crutch of the inarticulate mother f***er.

To echo @DrewHayes and to possibly outline my own OCD approach to dialog, people and characters have different ways of expressing themselves. Another word for "blue language" is expletive - a literal blurt of noise like a verbal tick. I certainly have experienced people who use the various forms and derivatives of the F-bomb as verbal fill - literally a replacement for "um" while coming up with their next thought. This is also cultural. My dad tells me that when he was growing up in Ottawa all the french kids swore in english because all the french curses were religious in nature and lacked the desired punch of vulgarity. In Appalachian Pennsylvania I've notice that people let scatalogical explitives go, but you'd better not say anything about The Father or The Son! And of course, where you are in that culture and your aspirations matter greatly. Lower class kids may never swear as they aspire to better themselves while upper class kids may have filthy mouths in order to fit in with kids who aren't as well off. And these change with the situation. My dad (again) always told me that I could swear around the house, but if he caught me swearing in front of some other kid's parents he would not regret killing me. Cursing, in short, follows the natural flow of a person's speech and the circumstances.

As for made up curses, the new Powerman and Iron Fist comic from marvel has Luke Cage using "flim-flam" type curses because the baby he has with Jessica Jones started swearing and Mama was not happy. Mama, on the other hand still swears and Iron Fist gives him grief about it. That's a joke, a character piece and an illustration of relationships all rolled up into a brief flashback and a few wisecracks.

I always thought that having a curse come out of an unexpected source was a good way to shock. A good example of this is watching Betty White work blue. She's good at it but it really takes you a second, because she's so well known as a grandmother type.

Another good bit with swearing is to have someone in the "frame" have a strong reaction. That's an extension of John Cleese wanting to put some pensioner in the background in Fawlty Towers when Basil goes completely off the rails. What Basil is doing is kinda funny but the lady being horrified makes the bit way funnier.

That's where I am with swearing. It's a tool in the box. Actually it's its own separate section of the toolbox. Yes, it will drive away some readers. Then again, if you are writing a story about Sailors or Soldiers or ... I don't know ... Rappers - what do these people expect?

Oh and I make it a point to never swear in narration. I really like to have a neutral, third person limited narrator, so it just seems weird.

It's a simple question for me, at least: does the character swear? If they do, then that's what they do. Some swear more than others, some even more than that. If that character is the viewpoint character, then you can expect that language to leak outside of the dialogue, too. To deny them that right is to deny their very identity.

I mean, imagine if Malcolm Tucker didn't swear...

There are logistical challenges to cursing in your work, especially if you have, for example, an 8 year old in the house and you are considering podcasting/audiobooking your work.

Swearing in fiction isn't really super-controversial any more. As Drew says, some people will be turned off by it, some to the extent that they will choose not to read your work. That said, you're not writing for everyone. You can't. It's not possible to write a book that will please all audiences, at all times. So focus more on:

Do you, as a writer, want to swear in your work?


Does the story you're telling work better with or without swearing in it?

If the answer to the first question is "yes," then just fucking swear. It's your story. Understand there are consequences, write it, and ride the joy of telling the story you want the way you want to tell it, and also maybe you'll win.

If the answer to the second question is "without," then don't swear in it. If the answer to the second question is "with," then swear in it. I'm always in favor of making the choice that makes the story better, even if it alienates some potential readers.

For my part, I'm all over the map. Light swearing in Pay Me, Bug!, occasionally excessive swearing in Curveball (but only from certain characters), almost no swearing to speak of beyond a few "damns" and "hells" in The Points Between. I don't think the stories feel any more or less natural based on whether or not the characters swear -- I mean, the story with the most swearing features superheroes, chthonic magic, telepaths, and a guy who can be in multiple locations simultaneously -- but I do think the rhythms of the stories are different, and that the choice to swear or not to swear, and to what extent to swear, affects those rhythmic choices.

Curse words is the sort of thing that has come up in the past, in somewhat different contexts, so searching the archives might provide additional information. I'll start by repeating what I've said before - I'm a teacher. It's practically in my job description to tell students "there must be a better way to say that". I rarely swear in my private life either, to practice what I preach; if I do, as Drew implied, I'm under serious emotional strain.

This means I'm as turned off by fictional characters who swear as I am in real life. It's an automatic strike. On the flip side, I recognize that, if we're going for somewhat unlikeable characters, it's a way of showing that. Flipping back, if there's swearing in the HOOK, that's two strikes already. The flip side there being that I'm not a dark humour or Rick/Morty kind of guy, ie- not your audience.

Early drafts of Corry in my T&T story had him shouting F*CK! I decided there was no need for that, and it became GODDAMN, which is about as bad as I get. Again, my profession does limit my freedom of expression somewhat (because parents and the media can't always separate professional and private lives), but me personally, I don't agree with "Swearing seems to be something you have to go more out of your way to avoid"... no. I don't think there's ever a time when I found myself thinking 'oh no, how can I express these raw emotions without swearing'.

I am generally fine with workarounds though. (Maybe that makes me a hypocrite.) I had a French girl in one story who was being built up as this angelic personality by the narrator, so the best way I had to throw a bucket of cold water on that was for her to swear. In French. As ScreamingCandle said, the swears are religious in nature, so tossing in some "Tabarnak, j'm'en criss..." didn't feel overly vulgar. (Yeah, I'm probably a cultural hypocrite.) Of course, even "Star Trek: TNG" had Picard say "Merde" in an early episode, and I find "frak" and "frell" to be amusing substitutions in Battlestar Galactica and Farscape.

In the end, I wouldn't say I'm "emotionally fragile", to use TanaNari's expression. It's just... as soon as I see swearing, it draws me out of the story. It makes me ask WHY. (The same way it does for me in real life, which again goes to culture.) If there's an acceptable in-story answer though? I'll keep going. And if it's a character trait, it might start becoming background noise.

Thanks for all the replies. That was faster than I expected.

@Mathtans specifically. I don't see anything wrong with your decision. I do think that swearing can be like a white noise. As Screaming Candle said, to some, it's their filler. Their 'umm'. But it's also not nearly so commonplace for a lot of people. My decision, it's feeling like, will be leaning conservative on their usage. I'm also strongly considering the usage of Chinese swear words, as in Firefly. As long as the pronunciations aren't a nightmare for me. I've not had trouble with that previously. With Cyberpunk it's typically Japanese, note, but I've got a few subversions planned.

"Swearing seems to be something you have to go more out of your way to avoid..." As for that, the rest of that quote gives it a qualifier. My point having been that swearing is mundane, to some people. Those people being populous in more dark or (trying to be) realistic stories. And so, even though it depends on your setting and whatnot, I'd stand by it. That's why shows like Farscape and Firefly have found clever ways around it. It was integral to the tone and type of people. It just depends, I guess.

I thought this subject had probably come up before, tbh. But figured it never hurts to cover good ground again. Maybe find something new.

For me, like some people here, it's simply a question of what's appropriate for the character. Some character's swear. Some don't ever. Some use religion based swearing. Some only use "vulgar" language as opposed to religious language. In all cases, they probably swear less than they would in real life. That's because I feel that a little swearing is enough to make an impression.

This may be because I rarely swear personally. This may be because a writing prof of mine limited his classes to one swear word for every three pages. In his case, he felt that swearing made an impact and that you should deploy it in the moments where you needed it and nowhere else.

I don't write with that limit in mind, but my main character rarely swears, so even if other characters do, I suspect it still feels rare to the reader.

@mathtans Nothing wrong with being emotionally fragile, man. If I had to teach children, I'd be an emotional wreck. :)

Several things:

- In my primary work, Fantasia, the characters are from the modern world, so some of them swear. I actually bleep it out by replacing it with [censored word] because the lighthearted, humorous style of the story calls for it. I also do a couple of "How I Met Your Mother"-esque scenes where I simply replace the word (except in the show, they just called marijuana "sandwich").

- If I'm writing high fantasy, I always make up swear words. Swear words show deep insight into a culture. There's a reason English swear words are about sex and poop, and French swear words are about religious objects. "Our world" swearing in a high-fantasy setting is simply a way to drag your readers out of immersion.

- In my everyday life, I consider swear words to be Power Words. The more you use them, the less they mean. I'll probably say "fuck" once a year, and people therefore know when I'm truly aggravated.

- Depending on the culture, swearing can be not serious or very serious. Chinese people who consider themselves to have any kind of class will never swear. I literally don't know any Chinese swear words even though I otherwise speak Mandarin because my parents never swear and I grew up in Canada. I'm given to understand that they're related to cursing your ancestors and your bloodline. Please don't use Chinese swear words as a humorous/light way of swearing.

@Unice. Noted. Wasn't planning to.

There's a humorous story I have about a South Korean exchange student I knew. They, on coming to America, swore whenever they could, because they couldn't get away with it back home. Shiba was their favorite word. Probably not worth a new post but who cares.

I counted 104 uses of the word 'fuck,' across 129,000~ words of my serial.

Honestly, I expected more, even though put some effort to lay back on it.

I just write the word I think will fit in that scene, I don't really shy away from cursing. I think it depends on the story though. IN my first serial, I didn't use any swears at all, because that wasn't exactly a world and story in which cursing would fit. Now? I definitely use it more.

"In my everyday life, I consider swear words to be Power Words. The more you use them, the less they mean"-Unice5656

I wholeheartedly agree, and I wanted to expand on this with my thoughts a little. I think cursing is fine, I do it all the time and everyday, but I try not to in my serial, if only because I want them to carry weight.

I am reminded of Douglas Adams and his only use of the word "fuck" in his Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy series. He spends an entire chapter dancing around the topic of Arthur Dent having sex in the most polite and British way possible. This means that he was utterly unable to get his point across and at the end of the chapter finally relented in being blunt with the reader and dropped an F-Bomb. It had great comedic effect and seeing that it was the only time I remember ever having read him use that kind of language made the word stand out exactly like it was supposed to. It was brilliant.

The only word I tend to shy away from in writing is 'fuck', despite it actually dating back as a verb to the 1500s, because it sounds too modern and predominantly American in tone. Your typical fantasy or scifi character can say 'goddamn' and 'hell' just fine, but the moment he starts peppering his words with 'fuck' I can't help but to start picturing some teenager or corporate fuck. (It's just so versatile, sadly.)

ASoIaF/GoT doesn't twig my suspension of disbelief so much because all these people are assholes.

I was hesitant to chime in with my unwanted tuppence, given that I have some strong feelings about personal expression and the freedom thereof. Thankfully, Unice captured a great deal of what I wanted to say far more eloquently than I could have put it.

I have to emphasize avoiding 'cultural hypocrisy' when it comes to swears/curses/expletives.

Mathtans covered a very important point about professionalism and how a person's day job can really dampen freedom of expression creatively.

Everything everyone has said so far is very good food-for-thought about this whole thing. The only thing that piqued my interest is the shifty sentiment I see that swearing/cursing is somehow morally inferior, less sophisticated, or makes a character an asshole. Don't agree with that. Quite the opposite in fact. Prudes tend to be assholes far more often than uncouth bastards are. That's just my personal experience for what little it's worth.

I agree with Bluepencil about the word 'fuck.' The word alone or used in a modernized context can be jarring. I have to waffle on this though, because it is a versatile word, and sometimes you just have to drop the f-bombs. There can be room in fantasy for reasonably appropriate f-bombs.

Lots of stuff has been mentioned so far, so I'll try to mention some in-context swears that I've used. If you want to criticize me for them, feel free.

I try to have my characters swear very sparingly, but I will when it's absolutely relevant to the situation or the character. I will try to put the swear in my fantasy world as much as possible. Most of the swears do come across as religious, given it is a fantasy society.

The most jarring use of a swear I have thus far is in a flashback I just revised and uploaded. In a way I wanted to hearken back to the Queen Xenomorph scene from Aliens. One of the characters finally comes into her own with her telekinetic powers, and pushes her individuality against her mother. It's an act of rebellion along with wanting to protect her family against a monster. Right before her offensive act, she blurts out, "Fuck off! You undead bitch!" I'm still debating changing it, but it fits for now.

Another character is a bit of an upstart that has a lot of heavy resentment towards a main character. She's headstrong, arrogant, and doesn't like the main character having abilities that she doesn't have. When the main character uses her abilities to sabotage her (causing her to trip in a run) her pride is hurt. She blurts out "Dhaulmyrr (sun god) fuck you with his ever-burning flames!"

I have some rough-and-tumble barbarian-like characters who are warriors in the later parts of my story (about three-thousand years later). One of those characters is a commander of an army and has learned that honesty is best in all things. As such, he never censors himself. He swears like a drunken sailor. A common expletive of his is "By Tolesh's brilliant fuck!" Tolesh is the goddess of life, from her the spark or 'soul' of all life in the world came forth.

I think those are the only ways I've used the f-bomb in my story. I usually try to make swears appropriate to the setting.

"Gehemol!" is similar to "Hell!/Damn!/Fuck!" It's the place below the world where they say the dead dwell. "Curse you to Gehemol!" "Ride Tralt's lhipossa to Gehemol!" and the like.

"Arse" usually replaces "Ass" or "Asshole." Such as, "Jykal, you're a clogged up herdsmoll's (lizard-cow-thing) arse."

"Jhulkos curse you!" is similar to "You're insane/batshit/crazy."

I even decided to make up an in-language term for penis/cock, amongst others. "Lhipossa." Given a scene where a rather immature main character is trying to get a rise out of a bard character standing in front of his tent in the nude and his bodyguard by saying "He has a fine lhipossa, what happened to yours? Fall off?" Also use it as a chapter title because I can get away with it. Frak/Frell and all that.

"Olthenna (death goddess) take you!" Is similar to, "Fuck off and die."

There's also a culture-specific expletive that really has no correspondence in modern language. "Toltenvaelk." It's an expletive when a commander's plans go to hell and they blurt it out as an order. Basically, everything is FUBAR so fight to the last person standing.

There's some examples. Pardon if they come across as a bit 'Whedon-esque.'