Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Profanity in Fiction: When it's Okay to Say "Fuck"

Anyone who loves banned books week as much as I do (at least partially because it always sneaks up on me) is aware of what the top three reasons for books being deemed "objectionable" are. In no particular order they are; sex, violence, and profanity. While we could go on endlessly about the first two, let's focus on the third. Profanity.

What's the Big Fucking Deal?

If I had a nickel... I sure as fuck wouldn't put it in there.
Profanity causes a lot of arguments in fiction. On the Don't Say That side of the line we have people who consider profanity to be low-class, cheap, and offensive. These readers may shut a book and refuse to finish it if the author uses profanity in the book, and they may also attempt to get the book banned from a library. Readers on this side of the line also tend to trumpet the defense of the young and impressionable, claiming that if they aren't old enough to use that kind of language then they shouldn't be reading books with those words in them either. Whether one agrees with these sentiments or not they're important to consider because there are a lot of readers who feel this way, and pissing off readers is a good way to shoot your career in the foot.

The other side of the argument is made up of the That's How People Talk camp. Think about when you watch a rated-R movie on TV, and the hero's profane one-liner is turned into a kid-friendly ad lib. Cleaning up the language characters are using in a book is sort of like that; readers know what they mean, but the characters are denied their preferred forms of verbal punctuation. I call this pulling the punch, and it refers to taking any action that alters a story with no intention other than making the person reading it feel less uncomfortable. Generally it doesn't serve to make the story better, and many times it can make what was a poignant exchange seem juvenile. This side of the line tends to be readers who admit that while the use of profanity is vulgar, it is still a tool that can be used to great effect in a book.

How Profanity Has Changed Over The Years

There was an old piece of writing advice from Mark Twain that suggested writers replace every use of "very" with the word "damn" because the editor will simply delete all the unnecessary terms. It was meant to show that "very" is a lazy word choice (which it is), but it also let people know that "damn" would rarely if ever be allowed into a completed manuscript.

That changed in the 1960s.

Along with pretty much everything else.
Somewhere between the beat generation and the creation of the hippie language was allowed to be more honest. Rather than characters "swearing oaths" or "cursing under their breath" the author would simply tell us what was said. People said "shit", and "goddamn", and even the previously-unpublishable "fuck". The spirit of the times was reflected in the books produced, though as mentioned in this article by Jo Walton featured on here, it took genre fiction until the 1980s for space opera soldiers and fantasy knights to say fuck with some real confidence. Part of that was that people dropped metaphors that had commonly been used in fiction up to that point, and part of it was that profanity was much more commonly used in day-to-day language. So there was really a two-pronged evolution going on in regards to the profane.

So What The Fuck Should I Do?

Oh for fuck's sake...
What you should do as an author when it comes to profanity varies depending on the book you're writing. For instance, if someone is writing a modern-day story then it's important to use the language of the day, complete with slang. If you're writing from the perspective of a character then the observations we see will be colored by that character's personality and thought process. On the other hand, it's entirely possible to make characters that are terrible people without making them vulgar. Annie Wilkes, the main character of Stephen King's Misery is a horrifying character whose abuse of the lead Paul Sheldon borders on the level of atrocity. She never swears though, and in fact finds the whole notion of putting profanity into a book to be offensive even if she's perfectly willing to cut someone's legs off so he can't escape.

If you've invented your own world though, then what is considered profane is also up to your discretion. Whether it's the manufactured swear word "frell" in the television show Farscape or it's the particularly vicious swear word "bags" preferred by the wizard Zedd in the Sword of Truth series, you don't have to use a real-world four-letter word to let the reader know what's going on.

Put the "Profane" in "Profanity"

In 1944 the infamous observer of American culture H.L. Mencken noted that cursing had been going out of style since the Civil War. According to Mencken the problem was the anything truly profane had been seeing less use, and that people were replacing blasphemous oaths with short, four-letter words that lacked any real profanity in them. Sure "fuck" and "shit" are short, punchy words that can be easily barked, but are they really profane?

Where the fuck are you going with this?
One way to avoid a lot of the fist-shakers and wrist-slappers is to get truly old-school with your oaths. Whether you're writing fantasy or sci-fi, historical romance or a period piece, take a few gems from this article on old-timey swear words. Phrases like "Gods wounds" (shortened to Shakespeare's infamous "zounds") or one of my favorites "God's nails" are unique and visceral. Other old-fashioned oaths starts with "by the", which is part of the formula of someone actually swearing to do or not do something to a divine figure. This is particularly poignant in fantasy, where such oaths can be binding ones.

In order for something to be profane it has to invoke the divine somehow. Worlds with more colorful divinities will simply have more colorful profanity to go with them.

Profanity is Just a Tool

I've referred to profanity as verbal punctuation, and that's very true. To paraphrase Lewis Black, these are the words that adults use to express rage, frustration, and anger. As an author it's important for you to paint as honest a picture as you can. Does that mean you need to linger on every torn apart corpse in a murder scene, or every moment of passion between two lovers? No, not if it isn't making a point.

Profanity is the same way.

Do you have to use profanity to make a point in a story? Is it required to make a character properly repulsive, or hard-ass, or rebellious? No, you don't have to, but sometimes profanity is just the simplest, most straightforward way to make a fucking point.

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  3. By the end I was reading this in the tone of Hugh Laurie from House. It made the reading all the more enjoyable. Well done on this subject!

  4. Interesting post. I think profanity is fine if it fits the character and scene.