Sunday 6 March 2022

Mind Your Language: can you and should you include swear words in your fiction?


Swearing, Profanity, Cursing, Curse


What the Bible suggests

But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Matthew 5:22

“Raca” was an extremely abusive swear word in Jesus’s time and if you were heard using it you could be punished by law. Jesus is here saying that it the intent behind the word that is important. Calling your brother a fool is not a Christian act.

Can the expletives we use in our fiction show a level of emotion?

On the other hand do some of our characters overuse swear words but that’s just part of their personality so should be included?


Made up swear words

If you write science fiction, fantasy or science fantasy, how people swear might be something you need to consider in your world-building. Do you need to make up news ones? That might avoid the dilemma about whether to include them or not and save you from offending a publisher?  In Battlestar Galactica we have “fracking” - an alternative and perhaps rather unfortunate ‘f’ word.   

A school friend of mine used to tell people to “go and stink in a quagmire”. She thought this more acceptable than more commonly used expletives. Well perhaps it was less clichéd, but isn’t it even in fact rather stronger than calling someone a fool and would it put the speaker in danger of more than hell fire?   


Some publishers do, some don’t

Will it compromise your product if a publisher will not accept your swear words?  I have heard of one that is quite happy with the “f’ word but rejects ‘bloody” unless it means “covered in blood”.  This is because it is actually short for “by the lady” which refers to the Virgin Mary. This particular publisher has ties to a religious institution.

If your expletives really must be there, might you not have to give up on some publishers? I actually had a short story rejected by an academic journal because it has the ‘f’; word in it. I won’t take it out of hat story. It is so much part of the character who uses it.


Less is more

If you have a character that swears all the time, they probably don’t need to do it as much in your fiction. A few examples are usually enough to give the reader the impression of what the character is like.  The same is true of dialect and you certainly don’t need to try to capture all of an accent or you might make the work unreadable.


There are always exceptions

The word “fucking” occurs twice in most lines in John Cooper-Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown.  Here  it is extremely effective because it occurs so often.


I once had the dubious pleasure of introducing an adult leaners’ class to this.  This was something that the University of Salford ran as an offering to the community.  Most of the group was made up of middle-calls ladies over 60.


I was covering the class for a colleague who had to attend a funeral. It was only a few hours before the class began that I realised that there might be some difficulties.

I needn’t have worried; they absolutely loved it – and all of his other work.


It might be worth looking at how he does it.


So, to swear or not to swear?

Is it an essential part of your character, in earnest or as habit?


Are you prepared to walk away form a publisher who doesn’t want to include this part of your style or of a character’s voice?


Can you use just enough to give us the essence of the character?


Or do you want to go to the other extreme like John Cooper-Clarke?


In certain circumstances can you make up new expletives? And if you write historical fiction you can engage in some interesting research to find out what they said back then.  


1 comment:

Possible Possum The First said...

Interesting article Gill, and I appreciate you highlighting this. I tend to avoid overt swear words in my writing as it is generally for female based magazines and is simply inappropriate there. As an Aussie I've been discouraged from using bloody in my Australian stories even though the adjective has less negative connotations there and can even be a compliment if describing someone. Bugger is again a word with different meanings and is akin to Damn over there. Some American films are replete with two swear words in particular and I tend to avoid watching these for that reason as I still have old fashioned values.