Monday, February 20, 2012

Hearing Voices: I Swear

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.

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  1. Great point. I have had to backtrack in a few books and do not like that at all.

  2. Dani, this is such a great reminder. If writers use character sheets to remind them of dress choice, cars, eye color, education, etc., expletives and other turns of phrase would be a good addition.

    Of course this is another great reason to use an editor, because it's easy to confuse voice, even if you are alternating two distinct narrative voices. Why? I'll refer to one of my favorite quotes, from Anne-Sophie Swetchine:

    "Might we not say to the confused voices which sometimes arise from the depths of our being, Ladies, be so kind as to speak only four at a time?

  3. Some of my characters operate in the world of crime ... folks who are not going to sound credible saying 'well, I'll be darned' it when reacting to bad news ... however, it can be over done ... too much potty mouth sounds artificial too ... all I can say is it is a @$#^&% job to keep it in balance.

  4. I agree that swearing can be overdone and actually took out some of the language in Open Season as I reworked it for the coming release as an e-book. I realized that even though one of the central characters has a potty-mouth and that is part of who she is, I didn't have to let her swear all the time.

  5. Good point. I'd also add to be careful about usurping other words or expressions one character uses and applying it to another. On one of my edits, I discovered just such a thing, and did a search and replace in case anyone else might notice it.

    Morgan Mandel

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  7. This is a good assessment of an on-going issue, especially for novice writers. Whenever I teach a beginners' class in Fiction Writing, I categorically forbid my students to use swear words, not because I am a fussy prude who finds swearing intolerably offensive, but because it's all too often a lazy writer's alternative to crafting good dialogue.

  8. I don't mind some bad words in a novel. You are right about the crime world, Christopher - cops and drug dealers alike - don't talk like my Aunt Agnes used to. But I don't care for it if it's spread on a like peanut butter on a sandwich. Too much and it's a turn off (and shows me that the writer needs to work on vocabulary).

  9. This post and the comments are helpful as I revise my WIP. I have a very bad guy in this book and he uses a lot of ugly language. I want to make sure I'm not overdoing it while keeping enough swearing in the dialogue to make his character (or lack thereof) very clear.

  10. Excellent post, Dani, about a touchy subject. To swear or not to swear, that is the f**#ing question.

  11. Excellent post, Dani! We all need to be sure our characters stay in character, so to speak, and it's so easy to slip out of that without being aware of its. As Kathryn noted, character sheets are great reminders of what works and what doesn't work for each character. By the way, these sheets need to be kept for minor characters as well as major ones, but not, perhaps, in as much detail.

  12. I agree with Debby: (swearing is often a) "lazy writer's alternative to crafting good dialogue." It takes a lot more creativity to come up with an alternative to the F-bomb, etc.

  13. You know, you don't have to swear to add a emphasis on your character. The true and great writers will achive that whithout using so much as one swear word in their stories.

  14. In reference to the world of crime and other disreputable folk, I can say that having worked in the news business for a number of years I know these sorts of people do use a lot of curse words. But they know other words to, and what they say when they're not cursing is often far more revealing.

  15. In my current novel, the main character refuses to swear. He's nicknamed Gentlemen Jim for a reason. But danged if he didn't use the eff-word in a pivotal scene, and it was so right, I couldn't edit it out. Sh*t happens, you know, even to the best of us. ;)


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