Swearing isn’t my favorite human trait, in real life or in novels. But a foul mouth can serve a few purposes in writing including these:
- Define a character as bad
- Define a character as different from other characters
- Create a feeling of tension or stress in a character
Overuse of swearing can simply wear on the reader and that’s not a good thing. Most good authors know to keep it light unless they have a really good reason to do otherwise.
Swearing also has to be in character, and it surprises me how carefully authors will create a character down to the color of the top-stitching on their silk shirts, but don’t really think about what kind of expletives would fall out of their mouths, if any at all.
Recently, I read a book in which the author had used a rather creative cursing expression for the protagonist. That character didn’t swear much, just when he was in the occasional tight fix. To keep things anonymous, let’s pretend this character was a literature professor and he swore by saying “bloody balls”.
In the course of the action, the wicked antagonist, who had not one second of direct contact with the professor and no previous life connection at all, was skillfully propelled toward our hero in one of those deftly crafted train wrecks that make for a good thriller. Suddenly, the perp stops and clutches his heart, he pales, falls to his knees, gasps, and whispers, “bloody balls.”
What? Wait a minute. Who is having the heart attack here? I had to go back and re-read a few pages to figure out what was going on. Now what is the likelihood of two such disparate characters in one book using exactly the same expletive? Not bloody likely at all! That’s exactly the kind of mistake that pulls a reader out of the story.
But you know what? I can hear the author using the exact same expression. What I was hearing was not the hero, nor the bad guy. I was hearing the writer’s voice.
So keep that in mind as you craft your characters’ voices. How would they swear, if they did at all? When they swear, what perpetrates them to do so? It’s just one more way to give them each a distinctly honed and unforgettable personality.
Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, writer, editor, artist, and Special Projects Coordinator for Little Pickle Press. You may find her at Facebook and at Twitter.