Swearing in Fiction: Six Rules When You’re Feeling Blue
I’m going to hazard a guess that I’m not the only one here who swears. Am I right? Even if you don’t say it out loud, I bet you know more than a few colourful phrases. How do you feel about swearing in novels? Is it offensive, acceptable, or does it all come down to whether it gels with the story and character?
I’ve been thinking a lot about swearing – not doing it, but writing it.
Recently, I read a book in which the uber baddies never swore, not once. They threatened, bashed and slaughtered, yet never did a swear word pass their grim lips. Another offering had the romantic heroine drop the f-word for no apparently good reason. The first left me cold, the second stung like a slap. Both pulled me out of the story. They left me wondering if bad guys who don’t swear are believable, and conversely, is a heroine who drops f-bombs at every opportunity likeable?
Context plays a large part. Eliza Doolittle yelling ‘move your bloomin’ arse’ while at Ascot is used to show that the Coventry flower seller still lurks beneath the polish, that a designer dress and rounded vowels can’t disguise her true nature. Only when she completely embraces her new self (for love, naturally) do the habits of the streets leave her. She chooses Professor Higgins and in so doing leaves her guttersnipe ways behind. And what of Gordon Gecko, protagonist of the hit film Wall Street? Corporate Raider, shallow, selfish, and eventually imprisoned for insider trading, Gordon rarely, if ever, swears. If he had, it is unlikely he could have so smoothly conducted his fraudulent activities.
When I was working on Pieces of a Lie, I had to confront the issue not just of context but of character. My baddie is a guy from way over the wrong side of the tracks. Born into disadvantage he has clawed his way into society. His morality is warped by greed and burning resentment at ‘those who have’, and the only thing he has retained from his past is a mouth to match the sewer he scraped off his shoes. That context is ripe for a character who swears. A lot.
Likewise, my lower-middle class heroine has fallen on tough times. As a second hand and antiques trader she’s had to move between wheeling and dealing and interacting with others in a higher class. Her past has also given her burning resentments and a huge store of swear words. She gets into some scary situations, circumstances where most of us would utter a swear word, or a few. But should she use them?
A Hook or a Turn-off?
The baddie’s language doesn’t bother me so much, but my heroine has given me a lot of trouble. By being true to her voice, I worry that readers will turn away. After all, I gave up on the Detective Harry Bosche series because of the copious use of the f-word within the first chapter. They were well within context, but I didn’t want to be assaulted by them. Maybe it was just where I was at in my life at that time, but I remember the disappointment of reading that first chapter with all the f-bombs. Sure, that may be how those cops talk to each other, yet I didn’t want to be assaulted. I wanted to be transported, thrilled, on the edge of my seat as Harry solved the gruesome murder and maybe, this time, got an answer to his mother’s death.
In my current work in progress Ashes to Ashes one of my major characters is an English Championship League footballer set for the big time. He loves his Audi R8 and speeding through the countryside. He’s grown up on a council estate with a deadbeat, abusive dad and a hard working and supportive mother. Football has been his way out. But his background has shaped him as have his interactions with other players. Men talk to each other differently too. So far, his dialogue and thoughts are filled with swear words. And again I’m struggling with how much I should allow to remain in the novel.
It is said we should write what we know. I grew up near a port filled with hardened men and colourful language. While our home was an expletive-free zone, punishable by missed dinners, no TV and early bedtimes, my contemporaries knew a bunch of exotic words guaranteed to make a parent red-faced and speechless, and these were made more exciting by being taboo. As I acquired a Doolittle-like polish I cleaned up my language, but around me were people for whom swearing peppered every sentence like bird shot. Among some (admittedly older) acquaintances, a string of expletives accompanied by a smile and a shake of the head was a term of endearment.
Since I decided to embrace my past and bring those experiences to my writing, the words have flowed. I’ve found it easier to fall into my characters. It’s refreshing and fun and indulgent. And a surprising number of swear words have appeared on the page. It may be real, but is it readable? I don’t want to assault readers. I don’t want to lose you before you fall into my story and become transported.
A Few Rules…
Now my concern is how to balance reader sensibility and stay true to those characters. So I’ve come up with a few rules for myself.
- No swearing until I’ve hooked the reader.
- Where possible, use a lesser word (as long as that is still true to my character)
- Only swear when it is a) true to the character, and b) adds to the scene
- No matter the character, save the heavy hitters (those four letter words that carry all the weight) for those moments when they’ll have the most impact
- Consider the audience and the genre conventions (but don’t be a slave to them)
- Above all, do what’s right for the story
Now that I’ve listed some ‘rules’ I should state that these days, after kowtowing to rules for far too long, I strongly attest to the adage,
‘The only rule is there are no rules’.
Ultimately, both as reader and as writer we must embrace the characters in all their flawed, multi-faceted glory and let their journeys unfold.
So what do you think? How do you feel about swearing in fiction?
What is your line in the sand? Do you have one?
Share your thoughts in the reply box below. I love to hear from you.
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