Profanity? **** Off - by Debbie Bennett

Authos Electric Debbie Bennett
It’s interesting to see how polarised people become over swearing in fiction – authors and readers alike. In books or on television, in stories, films and dramas. There’s the camp which advocates against swearing of any kind: on the grounds that it isn’t necessary, may offend people and rips a hole in the moral fabric of society.

Then there’s the opposing camp, north versus south, which believes in freedom of speech, in allowing characters in books and on screen to be themselves and if people don’t like it, well they are free to switch off their device and/or close the book.

There are always two sides to every coin (there are two sides to most things – except, of course, to a Mobius strip …). Why swear unnecessarily when writing, when you know you risk alienating some of your readers? Having said that, dear reader, swearing is as old as the hills – it’s not some new device intended to corrupt the youth of today. Our medieval ancestors were probably far better at it than we are!

Does the f-word add anything to fiction? What about other words? Most of us have a level beyond which we won’t go. And I write dark crime and you really can’t have the bad guys running around with guns and shouting “Oh, dear.” Not if you want to retain any kind of realism. But many readers don’t want realism – they want escapism in their fiction and that’s fine by me. Please feel free to go read your dino-porn; I’m sure we’ll get along great but you are not my readers.

'Ratline' by Debbie Bennett
Why do people swear, anyway? Maybe they think it looks and sounds cool – gives them street-cred? Or maybe they lack the vocabulary to express themselves any other way. You can’t expect a street-kid to have the education or voice of an Oxford graduate. And it’s all about voice in fiction – making your character authentic and realistic.

My central character in my current series is public-school educated. For various reasons which become clear throughout the books, he’s also a gangster and very good at what he does; he has an expansive vocabulary but still swears. A lot. Why? I don’t know. That’s who he is. And my editor keeps making him swear even more! But everybody is a victim of circumstance in one way or another.

I don’t believe in censorship, although I can sympathise with those who believe that self-censorship is unworkable. I think we all have our own boundaries. Personally I can read and write pretty much anything, although there are certain words I won’t use. And there is always the OFF button!

How far do you go?


Elizabeth Kay said…
The problem becomes even more acute when you're writing for children - the 9+ age-group. In YA swearing is common, as it simply isn't realistic without. But when you have a 12 year-old feeling something very strongly they're not likely to say "Oh, cripes," as such characters did in days of old. I'm still wrestling with it. If someone has a better idea than "Rats to that," would they kindly let me know?
Ted Cross said…
I'm writing for adults with the Russian mafia as antagonists, so there simply was no way to avoid profanity and remain authentic. In fact, there probably should have been a whole lot more profanity than I depicted. I know there are many who never want to see it, but I don't really understand such people. Real life is what it is, and pretending it isn't there doesn't lead to a magical fairytale life in my opinion.
JO said…
I think it's about allowing your characters to be themselves - even if it means using language you can't bear to use yourself. Even so, I struggled when I needed to use the 'c' word, and I'm not sure I could manage anything overtly racist (which upsets me much more than an 'f' or two.)
Lee said…
I don't understand why anyone bothers to write 'f-word' or 'c-word' or whatever. We all read what is meant; we hear it anyway The only time I'd ever use such a euphemism would be in a direct quotation or in a conversation in which the character himself speaks that way.

But of course I love slang -- urban or otherwise -- coarse language, and every 'fuck' I can muster in my dealings with the world at large, and German bureaucrats in particular.
I've had somebody deduct a star from a review because of 'profanity'. That was in the US. It was the Curiosity Cabinet which doesn't really have very much 'profanity' at all, but like your gangster, an island fisherman isn't going to say 'Oh dear, my engine has broken down.' I was looking at a play I'd written a few years ago and was slightly surprised myself by my (or the character's) liberal use of swear words - it looked like a James Kelman manuscript. But it was authentic. When it was done for radio we had to remove ALL of them and it pissed us off a bit, actor, director and me. It sounds OK but it lacks the energy and impact of the original and was only redeemed by a good actor. He drew the line at removing the word 'Christ' though - (as in 'Christ knows') -which we were supposed to do but he downright refused and they let it go. Swearing on radio has to be 'referred up.' I suppose to some majestic person who sits behind a desk and decides on listener sensibilities!
Lydia Bennet said…
I've had a couple of people complain about swearing in my crime fiction, though only one character does it much and most of the time it's not an issue. I'd not change it to please the odd person who has a thing about it, people have 'things' about all kinds of issues. Swearing is normal now in everyday convo, you can hear it everywhere, it's a fact. It was total crap what we were told about it being 'low class/common' and 'shows you have a poor vocabulary' as posh people swear like mad and professional writers swear as much as anyone. if anyone thinks swearing isn't funny, look up 'The Skinhead Hamlet' online.
Debbie Bennett said…
My editor just made me put the C word in my WIP and that is generally a word too far for me. But we have to compromise our morals for the sake of our art ... :-)
Bill Kirton said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Kirton said…
I'm with you, Debbie. What sort of world do these people live in if they never hear these words? My own latest example came when Mari, in her lovely Amazon review of The Sparrow Conundrum, quoted a passage to illustrate her appreciation of its bathetic impact. This depended on the placing of the word 'fuck' - or, in Amazon's version, the word '****'.
@Ruby_Barnes said…
Good post, Debbie. As well as the context there is also the changing social attitude over the course of time towards language. In digitalizing authors' backlists for re-release as e-books and paperback, I've come across outdated terms that are sometimes unacceptable in the modern world (usually racist terms). Other times the expressions are almost funny - in the latest set of Soviet detective novels they say "Fuck your mother!" a lot but it's just an exclamation, not an insult.
Your post has reminded me that I ought to wheel out my blog post Profane Twelve Days of Christmas which shows the report a profanity filter gave on my novel The Baptist when I emailed a pdf to a friend. (The phrase 'arse' was found at location 70126 etc)
Jan Needle said…
The ebook version of my Other People's Blood, which is about love, lust and horrible brutality in the Northern Ireland troubles also earned a reprimand and loss of stars because it was 'unnecessarily' erotic. Who says so? Some reader. They're perfectly entitled to their opinion, but why share it? As it happens I rather disagree. And I wrote it for a reason, didn't I?

As it happens, the book's a 'reading' of Romeo and Juliet, a piece about the seduction of a twelve-year-old by a teenager. I've yet to read anyone slagging off Shakespeare for cashing in on paedophilia. Give it time; give it time...
Mari Biella said…
I agree, Debbie. Of course there are certain types of book, such as children's books, where one has to take care, and I'm not a great fan of swearing when it's done simply for shock value. But in general people do swear, and that's just part of life. It would be ridiculously unrealistic if people in fiction never let rip with some foul language. And there are times, of course, when there's nothing like a well-placed expletive to add force and eloquence to a comment...
glitter noir said…
It's hard to avoid profanity completely in my Boss MacTavin novels. Even so, I try to balance character and content. The villain of Southern Scotch is a porn king who wants to be taken as a refined man of taste. So every sex toy that he sells has a slick and respectable name. Every degraded sex act in his videos has a toney name. I made the reader wait for the potty-mouthed creep underneath--revealed when one of the heroes gets something on his silk designer shirt. So I'll willing to let rip when the time is right.

But the other night I had to turn off the stupid film, The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy? Every other word, it seemed, from McCarthy's mouth was obscene. This might have played better if the more elegant Bullock had played the raunchy bad-ass cop. But the producers and actress went for the cheap, easy laughs. I turned the film off after 20 minutes.

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