Oct 23




Everybody swears.

I swear. I say “crap,” “pissed,” and “screwed” without even thinking about it. I talk dirty to my husband. I occasionally drop F-bombs…in my mind.

Even the most prim and proper among us swear. Sure, they might use words like “golly” and “shoot” – but the same intention is there.

As writers, one of the things that we need to know about our characters is how and when they swear. Then we need to decide if we’re going to show it.

Language is a tool. Nobody knows this better than a writer. Language is communication, and it communicates so much more than just what a person is trying to say. It tells us about the speaker’s level of education, his world-view, his upbringing and community. It shows his level of openness, whether he lets it all hang out there or whether he’s mysterious, pretentious, or private. It gives us insight into his heart.

Writers know that the exact right word can make a story, and the wrong one can change the meaning in disastrous ways.

So what’s a writer to do when the right word is an expletive?

I’ve wrestled a lot with this, because this issue is taken very seriously in the Mormon writing community. Many (perhaps a strong majority) believe that a Mormon writer should never swear in her writing. These writers are unable to separate themselves from the characters they create and feel in their hearts that it is the same as using profanity themselves.

I think differently. I know that I am not my characters. My writing is sometimes dark, and I create dark characters. My characters lie, cheat on their spouses, steal, commit murder – and sometimes they swear.

So now that I know that my character swears, I need to decide if I’m going to show him swearing. I ask myself two questions:

  1. Is it necessary to the story?
  2. Can I find a better word?

Trust me, I try everything to avoid swearing in my writing. I substitute visual cues like “he slammed his hand on the table.” I use the old “he swore under his breath” technique. I give my character acceptable or creative substitutions, if I can make it fit his character.

But sometimes, the right word is an expletive, and I don’t shy away from using it.

For example, I use the F-word in my flash fiction story, Mouse. I tried taking it out. I tried a substitution. But if I did either of those, it would have ruined the story. The word is used to foreshadow the climax, to show building tension, and to give insight into his character. Without it, the climax simply wouldn’t have worked, or at least not as well.

So tell me, as a reader, are you more offended by a characters’ words than their actions? Will you continue reading while a villain rapes and murders, but you’ll put the book down if he curses? And as a writer, where do you draw the line and why?


Skip to comment form

  1. Debra Erfert

    On one of my book discussion lines, one author announced that his book had just been published by Harper Collins. To get that publisher, that author had to have had a literary agent take a chance on his manuscript, and s/he got it in to Harper Collins (there is no other way into them). That author put up a link to his book, and I was curious about it, since we write in the same genre. I opened up to the first page (I always read the first page before I buy any book. I believe you can tell the tone in which the author writes right at the very beginning) and started reading. It opened with a scene of naked man being tortured for information, with a blowtorch. I stopped reading in disgust, thinking this is what gets a literary agent’s attention, which in turn gets published by one of the “Big 5”. There was profanity in it, as well. I would never buy it, but I have no doubt this sick book, no matter how well done, or not, the plot was worked, might actually give that author fame and fortune. But at what price do we seek fame?

    I’m sometimes comfortable with having my hardened characters use curse words that show up in the Bible (there are plenty to choose from) when they are in tense or dangerous situations, but I will not ever drop the “F” word. I don’t let my mind wonder in those directions. I do this intentionally. I won’t read a rape scene because I don’t want that to leave a residue in my mind. I won’t read scenes of torture for the same reasons. I pick and chose my books carefully. Just because something is “popular” doesn’t mean I will spend my time and money on it. If I encounter “F” bombs on the first page, I put it back on the shelf. And I won’t waste my time writing what the world deems popular for the same reason.

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Thank you, Debra, I appreciate your comments, and I agree with you. Although I have a dark side to my writing, I am pretty sensitive as a reader. The scene that you described would have turned me off as well. I don’t write with an eye towards fame and fortune, but I absolutely believe in truth in my writing. That is when occasionally the swear words come in.

  2. Annette Lyon (@AnnetteLyon)

    I’ve written for Covenant for over a decade, so I’ve been forced to be creative in avoiding any kind of content that could possibly offend. The experience has taught me a couple of things.

    First, some writers go right to swear words as the lazy way out. Swears (and other content) aren’t always needed, and a better, more creative, way to write the scene could be out there.

    Second, sometimes the generic avoidance does make a scene weaker. I’ve had a few times I’ve drafted a scene with a swear, knowing full well that it’s exactly what my character would say–and that there’s no way it would end up in the final draft. And so help me, using a soft, fake swear for an evil villain or in a deadly situation with a marine comes across as just silly.

    I’m writing heavier women’s fiction now, stuff not intended for an LDS market. Some of what I’ve drafted in the last year would likely shock and offend some of my most conservative LDS readers, but as far as my conscience goes, I’m fine. I figure that what I write is between me and the Lord, and as long as I make Him part of the process, I don’t need to worry. That’s not to say I’ll be writing erotica or anything. 🙂

    I’m pretty new to ANWA, but I hope you stick around–I think we need all types of writers, and if people like us leave, who will be our support?

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Thank you, Annette, for your thoughtful comments and perspective. I absolutely agree with you that what I write is between me and the Lord, and so far, we’re good. 🙂 Thank you for the encouragement. It is greatly appreciated.

  3. Jon Goff

    Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. He wrote in prose, in a way no one spoke in his day. His words are immortal. You don’t have to be “real” to write realistic. Writing can and should transcend the human condition. Today’s writers too often forgo speech that enobles and inspires in favor of what they call “organic” or “real” dialogue.

    Today’s writer would have penned Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “to be or not to be,” in the language of a real person: “What the f— Uncle Claudius, your such a d—. And mom, what a b—-! What the f—- am I going to do? I can kill the mother f——, or I can off myself. ” You get the idea.

    We are not constrained by our characters. There are literally thousands of books where, because of censorship laws, the author was forced to write something so much better than anything we get today. It seems the freedom of speech has given us one thing, the freedom to be crass and vulgar.

    I wrote a book with no profanity. It is possible. The late great Isaac Asimov once wrote a story devoid of any profanity just to see if any would notice. Based on his fan mail, no one did. The strength of the story, the characters, and the plot are what matter.

    The idea that you are not your characters, and so it’s okay to swear through them is rubbish. Should an LDS actor participate in a sex scene? It’s not them, but their character who is doing the act, so does that make it okay. When we use vulgar words we are putting those in the minds of our readers, and I don’t believe we are free from being held accountable for that. Words have power, tremendous power. They can edify and they can degrade. We should be as careful with the words we place in the mouths of our characters as the ones we choose to use ourselves.

    To illustrate the point, remember the old adage that actions speak louder than words. If you want to show a person’s character in your story, show it with their actions, not their speech. It will make for a more gripping character who is more than two dimensional. It will make for more powerful writing, and when you use these “taboo” words, use them as Shakespeare did.

    “Out out, damn spot.” from Macbeth is profound. The spot of blood that Macbeth cannot cleanse is indeed damning, in a very literal sense.

    As latter day saints, I believe we have the obligation to return writing, and the use of language to the purpose I believe God gave it. To communicate high ideals, to enoble and edify, and to speak the truth. There is truth, even in fiction, and the one truth we have lost in all this is that we do not need to have characters curse, profane, swear, or use vulgarity to make them believable.

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Of course it is possible to write excellent literature without swearing. I loved The Hunger Games trilogy, and it did not have any swearing. I also loved The Book Thief, which did have swearing. Would The Book Thief have lost some of its effectiveness without swearing? I don’t know. I do know that the author carefully chose each and every word to convey exactly what he wanted, and the results were amazing.

      However, I challenge your logic that by having my characters swear, I too am swearing. When my characters rape, am I also raping? If they commit murder, am I also murdering? If they lie, cheat and steal, does that also implicate me? And why oh why is it that, in the Mormon community, so much is tolerated EXCEPT swearing? Why is that the barometer of what is “virtuous, lovely or of good report?”

      Will a romance writer be held accountable for the immoral feelings her writings illicit in others? Will a mystery writer be held accountable for the murders his villain commits? Will a horror writer be held accountable for the blood and gore that is freely spilled in her novels? And what if, in each of those examples, natural consequences are exposed, good overcomes evil, or redemption is sought and found? Does the overall message of the book negate all those evils — except swearing?

      Yes, profanity is overused and often nothing but a crutch. Your very example from Macbeth shows, however, the power that the right word holds when used correctly. I agree that as LDS writers we should communicate high ideals, to ennoble and edify, and most importantly to speak the truth. Truth is not always pretty, something that many LDS writers are blissfully unaware of. You choose your words to tell the world of truth. I will choose mine.

  4. C. Michelle Jefferies

    My main character is an athiest assassin. There’s no way he’s not going to swear. Saying great google moogly just doesn’t cut it. I do use the words crap, flaming, and bloody in my work as it is appropriate for him and for me. That said I do believe that actually giving the reader the word is not the best idea so if my character says something not listed before this, it is usually a “swore under his breath” “swallowed the swear word”,or a “what the . . . ” or something similar. While he is an intelligent character and I’m not a lazy writer, his swearing doesn’t necessarily mean I’m taking the easy way out, or he’s being dumb at the moment either. It means that for that moment that word is the perfect reaction for that character. I seriously dislike the generalization that swearing is a dumb or lazy excuse for other words.

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      I agree with you, Michelle, and that goes to my original point. How does your character swear, and how will you show it? There are many different ways to get the point across. Another interesting point that you bring up is that swearing is in the eyes of the beholder (or ears of the hearer). You use “bloody,” which isn’t very jarring to the American ear at all. However, it has a greater impact over the pond. Many New Yorkers wouldn’t blink an eye if you were to drop an f-bomb. It is up to us to make sure that the words that we use convey exactly what we want it to convey.

  5. conniecockrell

    It’s a delicate topic. Some publishers and contests won’t take material with graphic violence or swearing. Some will. As your comments show, some readers won’t take that material either. As a reader, I’ll go with the flow of the story. But also like an above commenter, at a certain point I just don’t want that scene left in my head. As a writer, I do what I can to avoid swearing. As noted Asimov didn’t use it. Neither did Heinlein or a lot of other authors. So I do what I can to avoid it. However. In my SciFi stories I’ve made up swear words. In a modern story I did, that included rape, there isn’t a single swear word. I think it boils down to your conclusion. What is right for the story and the character. Good luck with the work.

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Connie, I agree with you. I think most writers should try to avoid profanity when possible, because it can easily be used as a crutch. We want our words to have the greatest impact possible, and overuse waters down even the most vile words and renders them meaningless. Making up swear words is an excellent example of the point I was making — yes, our characters swear, so how do they do it? And I can imagine that swearing in your modern story would have lessened the impact of your most important scenes. Sometimes you have to let the story speak for itself and allow your reader to bring her feelings and reactions to it. Thank you for your insight and comments!

Share your thoughts.

%d bloggers like this: