Swearing In Fiction (and in real life, too)

24 Mar

There’s an interesting thread at Kindleboards right now about swearing in fiction–whether it puts you off, whether you use it. Some thought-provoking posts have provoked some thoughts in me, which I’d like to share here.

Quite a few people made the point that it’s unrealistic to have a character who would, in real life, swear a lot–mercenaries, assassins, tough guy characters–NOT swear in a work of fiction. To a certain extent, I agree. But isn’t creating a good, memorable character also sometimes about defying expectations? Allow me the indulgence of digression for a moment: I don’t swear casually at all, and I could count the number of times I’ve sworn properly (ie not damns, craps or buggers) on one hand. Why? Because when I swear I want people to pay attention. I want the word to have power. If I swear, then anyone who knows me will know that the situation is serious. Also because I feel swearing is a little coarse and a little vulgar, and although I can appreciate coarseness and vulgarity in others, it’s just not really who I am.

But it is who some of my characters are, and so I use swearing in my writing. Never the worst words, in fact I had to think about it before putting a few well-placed s-words in my latest work–it has zombies, I felt that ‘crap’ just wasn’t going to cut it. But only certain characters swear–some do so more easily than others, one character is hesitant to do so around women and apologises for it, and I think about every ‘bad’ word that I use before I use it. And often the things I take out while rewriting are hells and damns that do nothing for the sentence–a statement, even a strong statement–sometimes especially a strong statement–is often made weaker through over-emphasis. At least, that’s how I feel.

Going back to memorable characters, the one that immediately springs to mind is Brother Mouzone from The Wire. He’s well-spoken, well-read, highly intelligent, impeccably neat–and is one of the deadliest characters on the show, a professional killer. He DOES swear, but hardly at all compared to pretty much every other character, and every time he does the word is clearly and consciously chosen. He appears, I think, in six episodes, but he’s one of the most memorable and interesting characters on a show FILLED with memorable and interesting characters.

The Wire generally has a lot of swearing–I mean a LOT. But it has to, because of its setting, because of its characters. It would be ridiculous NOT to have swearing. And it’s a great TV show, one of my favourites. Do I like swearing? No. Do I hate swearing? No. What I dislike is pointlessness and lack of thought. I see so often, time and again, in real life and in works of fiction, pointless swearing that has no reason at all to be where it is. It’s a sign of immaturity and a sign–in fiction–that the creator has not given thought to their words. Some characters swear, that’s fine. But so often the swearing seems to be in PLACE of ‘character’ or original thought, shoved in there in an attempt to be big and hard and clever, when in reality it has the opposite effect–it makes the character look small and weak and unintelligent. I’m sure you’ve seen this, especially from younger people, where swearing becomes a mark almost of desperation, an attempt to get attention that does not have the intended effect. It can be the same in writing, when swearing is used poorly or gratuitously. When done right, it’s almost invisible, or it’s used for striking and appropriate emphasis. When done poorly, it marks the writer as unoriginal and coarse. Remember also, the more you use swearing in your work, the less power it will have.

The characters in The Wire swear because it’s part of who they are, part of where they grew up, part of where they live. The swearing comes FROM the characters and the setting. I think that’s fine–necessary, actually. It wouldn’t be The Wire without it–and where would Clay Davis be without his hilarious “SHEEEEEEEEEEEEET”s? But I feel like I need to repeat this, the swearing comes FROM the characters, it’s not forced ONTO the characters. And it’s always, always superbly written.

I guess what I’m saying is a cliche in itself; good writing is good writing, no matter the language used. But I think swearing is kind of a special case, an area in which it’s easier for some people to ‘slip’. Just as it can be odd to have a ‘hard’ character not swear, it can be just as distracting and awkward to have a ‘soft’ character use ‘bad’ language–especially if EVERY character is like this, which I see more and more often these days. By all means use swearing in your work, let your characters express themselves naturally, but give a little thought as to where the swearing is coming from–and whether there’s a better, more interesting, more original way to do it.

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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Of Writing


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