Saturday, January 28, 2012

To Swear or Not To Swear?

This is a swear jar.

It won't work for your characters. Sorry. :) And I'm not sure it'd be 100% effective on a real person, either. Motivation through loss of coinage will only go so far. But I think it's funny.

So what do you do when your characters swear?

I never bring this up in a writer's group or at a conference, because generally, everybody already knows the answer... whether they agree with each other or not.

I'm only speaking to the people like me who are still trying to figure out what they believe, and if you are already decided on where you stand, then that's okay with me. I don't actually care what you put into your book. :) Kinda like I don't care what you put into your cornbread. Not my problem. I'm mostly worried about my own book, and my own cornbread.

Let's go over the sides to this argument.

One side says this: "You are the author. You are the master of your fiction. The world is so full of ugly language anyway... do you really have to add to it? Is there truly not another way your character can say this, that might be even better? Surely you can come up with something. You must know enough of the King's English to give them words with more power than a word that a 14 year old would use. And if you write YA or Children's fiction, your audience already has to put up with that sort of horrific language at school and sometimes at home. A book should be an escape from filthy surroundings, not more of the same. The great old writers that you love kept their language clean, and still painted beautiful, believable characters. Are you not going to try, in your own way, to rise to their heights? If they did it, can't you?"

And the other side says this. "Editing your characters is not honest writing. Your characters need room to be themselves, and sometimes, characters will swear. It's just the way it is. It's not really you. If you are writing a character who is a crack dealer, and he doesn't swear at all, how can you accept that as realistic? You can't, and no one can who understands the realities of life. Your character will fall flat. Realistically, almost everyone swears, except for sweet Mrs. Cook down the road. This doesn't mean to use profanity every sentence, you're not a ghetto rapper. This means, every once in a while, you can punctuate your novel with a well-placed swear word to give it grit and to make your characters believable, and that is okay. You will stifle your creativity by self Bowlderizing if you don't let loose a little. Don't emasculate your characters. They deserve better."

For me... I would like to be the sort of person who never even THINKS those kinds of words. And I have also lived long enough to know that swearing is fairly normal and that there are wonderful people that I adore who swear. I think that there are much worse things that a person can do.

But I was taught by my mother that swearing isn't good. And... well... I'm not perfect, but I think that she has something there. In fiction, one has the choice to make a completely clean string of tens of thousands of clean words. In life, if you're in the habit of swearing and trying to break it, you will make mistakes, and you really can't take them back once they are said. But when you have that beautiful blank page in front of you... you can have a perfect record.

I also want to make my characters realistic. In earlier drafts of my finished book, there were probably 6 or 7 swear words. Two of them were said by the main character, and they were fairly mild. Two were said by one of the antagonists. And two or three were said by a couple of teenage boys in a short scene where they were being disgusting like I knew that those two teenage boys would have to be when I wrote the scene.

In each case, they were honest. They were exactly what those characters would have said. And the swearwords weren't that bad... probably PG swears. Most people probably wouldn't even notice. My grandma, (and I have about 19 grandmas, because I'm always getting 'adopted' by dear old ladies, so I think I'm safe mentioning one of them) whom I love, swears worse than my book ever did, and she's an old-school grandma who was raised by very proper people.

So... what to do? I WANT to write honest fiction. And I want to write without using bad words. Are the two mutually exclusive? My writing friends say to swear. My conscience says not to.

This will feel like a detour, but hear me out: I just finished the book WITH THE OLD BREED, by E.B. Sledge. I mentioned it in a past post. It's a non-fictional, first person eyewitness account of the horrific WWII battles for Pelieliu and Okinawa. And it is horrific. I stand in quiet awe of any soldier or marine who went through it. He described things that I have only encountered in nightmares, and many things that I hadn't. To survive something like that, and then to retain your humanity and any semblance of stability is remarkable. He was brutally honest about war, a brutal thing in itself. I can hardly recommend it, and I would not if he, the writer, did not speak about it in a very decent way. You can tell that he is one of the 'old breed' who still believed strongly in right and wrong. He loved his country, and fought for it and for the lives of his friends, even though he was terrified and horrified and many, many times just wanted to get out.

As I was reading the book, I noticed something several chapters in: he was trimming the language of the Marines!

The author would let the Marines say things like 'All fouled up' and 'When the stuff hits the fan'. And we all know how Marines really talk. They sure as hoopla weren't saying 'fouled' or 'stuff'. It's practically part of their training. But quietly and deftly, he rasped the edges and barbs off of their language.

Was E.B. Sledge being a coward, or a pansy, or a goodie two-shoes? Mm... no. And I know that because I've read his book, and he spoke about things that he had done and seen that would take a very, very brave man to talk about. I'm not sure I would have ever been able to talk about those things. I might have spent the rest of my life trying to forget that I had done them.

Wouldn't E.B. Sledge, who lived with these fighters through that same experience, who knew them personally, who loved them, wouldn't he, of any writer, have the right to show their language as raw and gritty as it really was?

I think he probably did, if it's about rights. But he didn't use that right. And I respect him a lot for that.

His book was not profanity free - there was still some swearing. But it was sparse, and the R-rated swears were nowhere in the book. And I still felt deeply for those men, and I still feel like I understood (to the limits of what anyone who has not gone through it can understand) the reality of their situation and who they were as people. Imperfect, sometimes incredibly noble, sometimes falling short, good and bad and everything else, ordinary boys and men who had an extraordinary and horrid job to do. The inclusion or exclusion of a few four letter words could not make or break that, because of the power and honesty of his writing.

If the writer could do that, for real people that he KNEW, men who fought and died for their country, who above many others deserve true representation... well then, Joseph, do you think that your fictional people are better than the real ones? If he did it for the f-word, which was and is used so frequently by men in dark and desperate places, don't you think that you can do it for your grandma words?

Right now, my book simply has blank spaces where the swears used to be, and it has been that way since last summer. I know I need to go over those places and rework those sentences. I think I've decided to leave out the swears in my writing... from now on. And I feel good about it. Maybe I'll lose something by doing so. But I would lose something either way.


  1. This is an interesting and tough one to figure out. I have read books that I wished had cleaned out some of the swears and others that didn't feel realistic enough because there were none. Especially Y.A. books. They usually have teenage heroes but they almost never swear. I think teenagers are the WORSE when it comes to swearing. So it always seems a little off to me. It is a tough one. If I was an author, I have no idea what choice I would make....

    1. It IS a tough one. And teens TOTALLY have the biggest pottymouths. Blagh. I think, though, that there are certain genres that are easier to write 'clean' than others. Probably fantasy... (I mean, hardly ANY swears in a movie like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings) I gotta study this more, but it seems like the further from home you set your book, the easier of a time you have. Y'know?

  2. Hi. I met you at Open Mic night last night.

    I love this topic! Gratuitous profanity is probably a bigger problem in my life than it is in the lives of any of my characters, but I still contemplate this issue when writing. Although I can generally control who's listening when I swear, I wouldn't want to control who reads my books and therefore I try to keep my audience in mind when I write.

    But here's an anecdote which has caused me to question even that: My mother is my biggest supporter as a writer and provanity's biggest critic. A few months ago she heard me tinkering away at her piano and asked me to sing her the song I was working on. I refused and explained that the language would bother her, but she insisted. After the final verse, I apologized for any offense and she told me that if I'd left out the profanity, the song wouldn't have had the same meaning or touched her so deeply.

    So my answer, which may not work for you, is that profanity can sometimes be necessary for the integrity of whatever you're writing. There's no sense swearing for the sake of swearing, but if no substitute would be true to your character, censoring him is not fair.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your blog and your writing. I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've heard you read.

    See you next month.

    1. Hi, Deirdre! Thanks for saying what you think. It's definitely a tough subject, and I smiled when you said you loved it.

      For me, I'm not terribly worried that anyone else will be offended. Tons of people who I adore probably wouldn't even notice if there were swears in my book. Several would congratulate me. :) I had a very dear friend of mine who congratulated me for a true-to-life swear in previous drafts, so I can totally relate to your experience.

      So for me it's more... I don't know. Internal? Something inside that I believe is right more than I want to make the writing honest. A trade-off, of sorts. And that's why my next book will be a fantasy. Then, I can totally cheat and get away with it. :) Bwa-ha-hwa!

      Looking forward to your reading at the next Open Mic night!