When the F#%K Should Your Characters Swear?

Time to bring out Ann and John again.  In case you missed their previous antics:

Ann and John on Copyrights

Ann and John on Characters with Accents

Ann and John vs. Robostrangler

And now, our latest installment – Ann and John and the Search for More F$*ing money.

I have mixed thoughts on those pesky swear words.  On the one hand, we are adults.  If your characters are adults living in an adult world, they might swear once in awhile.  Case in point:

“I’ve had enough of your goddamn cheating, John!”  Ann said as she drew her gun and pointed it at him.

“Ann!  No!  What the f$%k are you doing?!”  John asked.

“What I should have done a long time ago, you son of a bitch!”

Ann fired.  The bullet ripped through John’s flesh.

“Owww!”  John screamed.  “My f$&king arm!!!”

I don’t like gratuitous swearing.  I like to use it sparingly, avoiding it if at all possible.  Whether it is for humorous or dramatic effect, I only like to use it when the situation absolutely calls for it.

It’s not that I’m some kind of prissy teetotaler.  I don’t clutch my pearls, pop my monocle, and shout, “Oh I declare, I positively have the vapors!” whenever I hear naughty language.

Unless it is somehow central to the plot, or somehow works well with the story, I just fear that too many swears will alienate a reader.

The problem?  Just as it is possible to overuse swears, it is possible to underuse them:

“I’ve had enough of your gosh darn cheating, John!” Ann said as she drew her gun and pointed it at him.

“Ann! No! What the fiddlesticks are you doing?!” John asked.

“What I should have done a long time ago, you son of a female dog!”

Ann fired. The bullet ripped through John’s flesh.

“Owww!” John screamed. “My fudging arm!!!”

I suppose it is possible to split the difference.  After all, if you’re going through a frightening experience, like say, getting shot, you would probably swear, but then again, you might be in such shock, you might forget to:

“I’ve had enough of your cheating, John!” Ann said as she drew her gun and pointed it at him.

“Ann! No! What are you doing?!” John asked.

“What I should have done a long time ago!”

Ann fired. The bullet ripped through John’s flesh.

“Owww!” John screamed. “My arm!!!”

Well, let me get to the whole point of why I seek your input.  As previously discussed, I’m working on a sci-fi novel.  It takes place in a gritty world, where life isn’t easy for my characters, and bad things happen.

It has aliens, robots, spaceships, monsters – or in other words, the odds are younger people will like it more than older folks.  Although, maybe not.  I feel like I’ll still love Sci-Fi when I’m eighty years old.  The more sci-fi was around when you were a kid, the more you’ll like it as an adult.

As an author, I find swear words to be particularly vexing.  Don’t use a swear and you might be selling out, overuse swears and you’ll push potential readers away.  And the second you drop a swear word into your book you move from something that can be enjoyed by all to something that can only be enjoyed by few.

Well readers, what the f%&k do you think?

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18 thoughts on “When the F#%K Should Your Characters Swear?

  1. I’m middle of the road on this one. Like you said, swear words can be underused. I think it’s strange when I’m reading, and I see an adult character exclaim “you’re such a jerk!” while facing the man who murdered their child. (Random, but you know what I’m saying.) On the other hand, I don’t really like characters who are constantly in a state of “f**k this, f**k that, f**k you” either. Like you said, it’s a delicate balance.

    • It’s tough. I have a scene where it would just be impossible for the character to not swear. On the other hand, I lose readers that won’t like that swear. I suppose an author just has to go with what the scene calls for and consequences be damned…er, darned.

      • My advice is to just write the scene as it comes naturally. Would a normal person going through that situation swear? Then yes, add the swear. If it’s minimal, and the rest of the story already has the reader engrossed, I’m going to say most would overlook it.

  2. Jools says:

    Great post! For me, who has few scruples over language of any kind, it’s all down to the character. If it’s appropriate that they swear, then swear they must…

  3. Tommy Muncie says:

    I never tire of this debate even though I usually say the same thing:

    I’ll use it all, nothing’s off limits and I don’t worry too much about alienating a reader when I think of all the people I know who don’t usually swear much, if at all, who don’t shy away from books with high curse-counts. There’s the usual thoughts about whether it’s appropriate for character and situation and the like, and I say that if it is, go with it. If it’s not, perhaps still go with it because someone can always go out of character.

    I do find myself editing down the F-word count in final drafts, just because I do use it quite a lot. I got one review for Shadow’s Talent that amused me because the review said he would have liked about 20% less cursing. It was a good review; I soaked that comment up, but the irony was that I already did pretty much just that. When I did a count on the word processor, I’d used the word fuck about 200 odd times in 150,000 words. I cut it down to around 160 once I’d been through the scenes with cluster f-bombs and taken out what was too much spice with the main meal. There are worse words in that book anyway, and those I was a little more sparing with.

    Find one place for a good curse and I soon finds lots more. That’s just what I have. I have a feeling Patricia Cornwall found the same – her earlier books have maybe one or two big curses and her later ones have loads.

    Plus I often find myself smiling at one star reviews concerning swearing because there is often worse content that’s overlooked. One author I talked to about this wrote a story with graphic descriptions of sniper killings and got a review that said it was the cursing that was distasteful. I’ve taken to calling this an Apocalypse Now review after Marlon Brando’s line in that film: ‘They train our boys to drop Napalm on children but they won’t give them permission to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene.’ Or something like that.

    I’ll add this for good measure. Six months ago I had an accident at work where I was lucky I escape with a badly bruised leg instead of a broken one. Trust me when I say there are certain situations were you don’t just say ‘Oh bother.’ I was lucky only two colleagues heard what I yelled, but I think most people would have understood. I apply the same to writing. My content is harsh – IE it’s full of those sorts of situations. I don’t like holding back anything.

  4. bendingoverbookwards says:

    Really interesting post! It obviously depends on context etc, but swearing can be both overused and underused. That said, I have a weak spot for really creative swearing. If your swearing ranges into crazy metaphors, then I absolutely love it. Although not a book, the British political comedy The Thick of It is GREAT for really interesting swearing.

  5. It depends on your character. If you’re not true to the character either way because you’re afraid of controversy, it will show.

  6. adamlaredo says:

    If I could make swearing sing like Quentin Tarantino, I might use it more. That said, I agree with that middle-of-the-road approach. It’s better to use it when it’s right than too much or not at all.

  7. ksgarvin says:

    I agree with using swearing if it comes naturally, but I think it’s more likely for someone to overuse it than underusing it. My rule is that if I start to pay more attention to the number of swear words than what the characters are doing, then it’s too much. Besides, constant repetition only weakens the impact of swear words. It’s like having an exclamation point on every sentence. Now, if we’re talking Tony Beets on Gold Rush, that’s another matter! 🙂

  8. Reblogged this on Bookshelf Battle and commented:

    Thanks all for commenting. I’ve been meaning to get back to you, but I am currently embroiled in a legal dispute with the Yeti that is taking up all of my time. In the meantime, I thought I’d bump this up in case anyone f%$&ing missed it.

  9. gpj103 says:

    In the real world, I would think less of someone who was ignorant enough to be unable to articulate themselves without bad language. But in fantasy, as people have pointed out, I think you have to be true to the character you design.

  10. Amanda says:

    I am somewhere between these, I suppose. I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hate when writers try to avoid using “bad language” so they use substitutes where you know what they mean, and you also know they just didn’t want to use those words in their writing. I think there is a time and place for cursing, but too many times, it is overused, and becomes tiring. If a character (or person IRL) can’t speak without using foul language, I think there is an issue! I also think you need to know your audience well– there is far less tolerance of foul language in juvenile, young adult, and religious books. Also, I think some swear words are more offensive than others (specifically the f-bomb). Just my two cents!

  11. Ben Y. Faroe says:

    Another important consideration is setting a clear expectation with your reader. I’m not a huge fan of swearing, but agree the first thing is to be true to the story. That said, if the first time someone drops the f-bomb is on page 200, it will be kind of a shock for anyone who does take issue with that sort of thing and has been enjoying the story so far (especially if it occurs more regularly thereafter).

    And, while I get that there are situations that call for it, I think it can be simply omitted more often than you might think without really selling out or being fakey-nice. Worth considering since the first ‘bad word’ automatically cuts out a medium-sized chunk of most potential audiences.

    In my case, I’m fortunate enough that Sushi, my character who’s most likely to swear, is also an artist and considers common swearing to betray a lack of imagination and soul. She tries not to use the same swears twice.

    There’s one occurrence of “YUM YUM YUM IT’S A #$@%’N’ BURGER” on an ad design draft she’s getting frustrated with, but otherwise it’s more like: “Barnacled whelp of a sea hag! Blasted filthy spitoon-drenched abomination of the nether ice caves! The rage of Manhattan at rush hour to blast you! The fiery dark prickly stingers of a–” (link)

    • Sometimes I wonder if books should be rated like movies – R, PG, G, etc. Like you say, you need to be up front with the reader about your content and what better way than a rating. On the other hand, I suppose a lot of people would be against the idea, that it would diminish free speech or something.

  12. For Sci-Fi and Fantasy you can create your own swear words based on many different things. Alien or fantasy languages, fantasy locations, such as a moon landfill world name. Some examples of this would be Smeg (Red Dwarf) or Shtako (Defiance). There are also curse words used in other countries and languages that you could use. British words alone like tosser, arse, bellend, git and cack. Oh, and of course there is always the urban dictionary that you could fall back on.

  13. sledpress says:

    To me, swearing is always part of a characterization. (Disclaimer: there is probably no English-language swear that I fail to use in the course of a day.) So far, I am officially guilty of only a couple of mystery romans-a-clef that pissed off the entire government of my small county (everyone’s ox was gored). The contrast between portraits of kinda sane civic activists (who spoke in orotund pompous phrases suitable for publication) and less-sane civic activists who swore a lot was effective, per my first round of readers; some of my best fun came when the narrator, the nebbish editor of a local paper, dropped an f-bomb at a point of great personal crisis and his best bud on the paper said “Wow! You *can* say f*&%k! We were never sure.”

    So far as audiences, I tend not to worry much. The number of people who will actually drop your book to the Wilton carpet and call for tea if they see a four-letter infraction is probably negligible.

    In a related matter, late in the first of my mysteries I had the “heavy” character use “faggot” as an insult (literally, to a gay and quite positive character). Verboten or almost verboten slurs like this have, I think, more power to shock than Anglo-Saxonisms and *really* have to be used sparingly and with intent; do it right and you have made a statement about a character that becomes part of their identity. “This is a person of ingrained bias or a person who views all others with contempt.” Not sure why anyone would choose to overuse “faggot” or the notorious N-word or possibly the C-word, which is as much a slur as it is a profanity. Except for William Peter Blatty, who only gave the C word to one character and could get away with almost anything.

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