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:
- Is it necessary to the story?
- 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?