To Swear, or Not to Swear, that is the question by Neil McGowan
This post is brought to you courtesy of profanity. Or perhaps the lack of it, and some thoughts on when, or indeed, if it is appropriate when writing.
This train of thought was started the other day by my elder daughter. She's fourteen, and my alpha reader for my YA books. (And boy, does she tell me if she thinks something doesn't work, but that's a story for another time.)
She's been an avid reader for as long as she's been able to read, and has recently caught the 'fan-fiction' craze. We were talking about this – genuine interest on her part as I don't really understand the allure of it myself – and she told me she'd started writing some, based on her favourite Marvel characters.
We had a good chat about it, as she seems to be serious about writing (even asking what the difference was between a rewrite and an edit) until her younger sister, who's her test reader, let slip that she'd used swearing in her writing. Her response was she'd heard much worse in school (I can well believe it) and it didn't count if you didn't say it (not so sure on that one).
It started me thinking, though. As she pointed out, I've had characters swear in my books; this includes the YA ones, although it's rare for me to swear in real life. It's not that it offends me, and I'm not even convinced by the argument that it's a substitute for poor vocabulary. For me, the nature of my day job (teaching clinicians how to use digital systems in the NHS) means I have to be precise in the language I use.
(Side note here – I also tend to be given lots of technical documentation to write 'because you're a writer' as if that means it'll be easier – it isn't; I find it hard as the text has to be precise and free of ambiguity, nothing at all like writing fiction.)
So, why do I have characters swear? For me, I think it comes down to context and situation. The type of stories I write (mostly crime & thriller, with some horror and science fiction) seem to produce characters who are not averse to using the odd swear word; it seems to sit more naturally than in, say, a light romance, as the characters are more likely to be in situations that would engender the use of such language. I can imagine someone like Dickens's Fagin is much more likely to drop an F-bomb than, say, Jane Austen's Emma.
Situation plays a part, too, I feel. For example, in my last horror novel (Nanobite, about genetically engineered vampires and great fun to write), I had a scene where one of the characters who's been in an accident is being tortured by a vampire. I couldn't imagine anyone in that situation saying 'ouch, that stings,' but I reckon the air would've been blue with swearwords I've probably not heard yet.
This brings me to my point, I suppose – done well, it seems part of the character and you barely notice the swearing; done badly, which in most cases seems to be for the sake of it, and it removes that suspension of disbelief that we all strive for as writers.
As an addendum to this, whilst writing this post I was reminded of the Cleanreader app that caused a bit of a stir a few years ago (the details are all available online if you're interested). Basically, this app took the contents of a manuscript (ebook, for obvious reasons) and replaced all the profanity with 'cleaner, more acceptable' versions. The uproar from the writing community was swift and severe – the app was withdrawn within a week – with people such as Joanne Harris weighing in and pointing out that as writers, we weigh our choice of words very carefully in an effort to create the desired effect. Someone also pointed out that some of the changes made the text unintelligible – I'm still not sure what a cigarette rear is, but I'm guessing it's a butt. I remember thinking at the time what fun it would be to run a travel guide through it – for example, I live near a town called Cockenzie – wonder what they'd make of that? And I don't even want to think about Penistone or Scunthorpe…