Profanity is an interesting topic to me because of people’s vastly different reactions to it both in real life and literature. Some people cringe and can’t take swear words at all, others aren’t bothered by them in the slightest and some people consider them only to be effective when used in a good context. You even get those who feel profanity is a crutch for the inarticulate.
I don’t quite fall on any particular side in this debate because I’m totally an advocate for freedom in writing and creating art with as little rules as possible. But I do like to entertain all sides of the discussion.
My desire to talk about the topic arose recently when out of interest I checked the ‘fuck’ count in my upcoming book, The Black Glass Killer, and discovered that the word appeared a whopping 150 times in the novel so far, and that number can go up or down during the editing process.
Despite that high number I don’t throw around swear words willy nilly. I try to imagine how a particular character speaks and often read their lines out loud to get a feel for how it all sounds. Any writer will know sometimes things can sound right in your head until you speak them openly.
Regarding the three main crazies in my next book there is one who never uses a single profane word, there’s the main character who only swears when he totally loses control to his anger and there’s the third nut who swears constantly and talks in a vile, cynical and harsh manner.
That last character would definitely need multiple swear jars.
While I don’t set rules about swearing I do disagree with those who suggest it’s a crutch for the conversationally challenged. If you read The Walking Dead comics for example you get a mix of overuse and hard-hitting, totally well-timed and impact-driven usages of swears. Each style sets characters apart in the comic and can really make dialogue pop when moments call for it. To me the usage never felt unwarranted or distasteful.
If you consider how people speak in real life I’m sure you all know someone who is very profane but isn’t necessarily dumb or lacking a vocabulary. Hell when I’m not being serious I can swear an enormous amount of times. A swear word is a word just like any other to me. Sticks and stones. We’re all communicating at the end of the day whether we write, paint or compose.
What I’m essentially saying here is that I don’t believe communication necessarily requires sophisticated word usage or colourful, highfalutin phrases. Sometimes simplicity is effective. Sometimes a poorly written or spoken message can still hold great meaning.
In other words you don’t have to go full Orwell to communicate a theme, or message or idea intelligently or succinctly. Often brevity really is the soul of wit as Shakespeare himself once wrote more or less.
Language is free. Art is infinite. But at the heart of both is communication. You’re trying to tell people something. And that’s where I believe how you choose to tell it should be entirely at your discretion.
What I believe is more important is how the words you use fit together and communicate a message rather than what actual words you use.
At the end of the day profanity as we label it is merely a collection of crude words. And we have so many words. How do you decide whether to use ‘cry’ or ‘weep’ or ‘sob’ when expressing sadness for instance? Is it just for the sake of variety, is it the common tongue from where you come from or is it because that word encapsulates what you as the writer are trying to express?
There is a counter argument to this and that’s the idea that an overuse of profanity removes the effect of it. But I don’t believe that’s necessarily the case because depending on what you’re writing or which character’s perspective you’re writing from, sometimes there isn’t meant to be an effect conveyed but rather a personality.
Using the examples of characters in my book that I gave above, for the main character there is certainly an effect to his use of profanity since it only comes out in moments of blind rage. The other character, who constantly swears, is not conveying an impact with his usage, but rather his unwavering aggression. As for the last character who never swears at all it’s more about his quiet, composed and eloquent manner of speaking.
That’s a very brief summary of the thinking behind their language, but I believe it’s somewhat effective at addressing the matter of whether profanity needs an effect of some kind. It’s how you put together the message and how you intend to bring your words to life that’s what matters in a story.
When push comes to shove I just don’t treat profanity like an alien collection of words when I write. I use the word that I believe effectively conveys what I’m trying to express. Sometimes a good, well-placed ‘fuck’ just does the trick. Words are very much up to interpretation so I would suggest you don’t quote me on that out of context.