I can give cussing tips because early experience made me somewhat of an expert.
When I was young my sister and I were allowed to walk the block to our elementary school to play on the outdoor equipment. My favorite set of monkey bars stood beside a court where older boys played basketball. I’d scramble up as high as I could then perch there to watch. And listen. And learn.
After warming up the boys would remove their shirts. Around each neck the sun glinted off a gold crucifix pointing downward toward the slight swale between their adolescent pectorals. Their mouths loosened up with their muscles and my vocabulary lesson began—effing this and sh*tting that. Sometimes they dribbled the words effortlessly; sometimes they shot them with force.
But for me this was also a lesson in characterization: Catholic boys cuss.
Eventually I learned we all cuss in one way or another. From Dennis the Menace’s “Creepers, Mr. Wilson” to characters that roll about in a virtual verbal manure pile, we reveal ourselves through the language we choose. Hopefully, your novel will have a situation in which your character is pushed to a stressful extreme. When that happens, what will come out of his/her mouth?
My favorite example of cussing is from a 1946 children’s book by Elsie Church, Slappy: A Little Duck with Big Ideas. Slappy does not like being a duck; he wants to be a “pusson.” But when he goes out into the great wide world its challenges make the frustrations of quacking and swimming lessons pale in comparison. Slappy is always making up imaginative cuss words. “Oh whiffenpoof and tripe!” “Fishcakes and flyboots!” The book is fun to read aloud and my sons and I would laugh every time we read it.
What can Slappy teach us about the use of cussing in literature?
Choose cuss words consistent with your character. Slappy was wrestling with identity issues that resonate with adults—but he was so young he hadn’t even completed quacking lessons. His imaginative experimentation with language here is spot on. Even without using the standard lexicon we know he’s cussing, which is what makes it so funny.
Choose words acceptable within your genre. Adults are capable of choosing books whose language falls within their comfort level. Kids love evocative language, period. So genre guidelines aren’t dictated by the reader so much as by the gatekeepers—parents and publishers. All of Slappy’s words are acceptable for a young audience. The use of cussing in young adult novels is much debated, but since we all know young adults both hear and use these words, their use is realistic. If you come across cussing in a YA book and hope to use cussing in yours, jot down the name of the publisher as a submission possibility. Some publishers put language guidelines on their websites. And my youthful conclusion about Catholics aside, you might consider toning it down for most Christian publishers.
Foreshadow its use. Slappy was a feisty little duck facing some major challenges—we are not surprised when he cusses. But can you imagine Miss Marple letting the "f" word fly? Neither can I. Characters steeped in a culture of violence and sex, however, will naturally use harsher terms in their everyday speech.
Give careful thought to overuse. Slappy cusses only a handful of times in his book. This restraint is so seductive my sons asked me to read it again and again. In a novel for older audiences, a character who is always angry might always have a reason to cuss—but is that character well-rounded enough to be of interest to the reader? If “whiffenpoof” showed up on every page of Slappy’s tale it wouldn’t pack the same punch.
Craft question: share your ideas
Cussing is typically evocative of high emotional states. If your character cusses indiscriminately throughout your story, how would you escalate the emotion when push comes to shove?
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist for 19 years, she now writes literary women's fiction.