Those Darn Cussing Characters

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All modified images from pixabay

I don’t cuss. Well, rarely, and when I do, it usually makes me laugh, which defeats the purpose of expressing the strength of my irritation.

Yet, my characters cuss, some worse than others, and my cursing characters have elicited some negative reviews. It was a risk I chose to take, and I’m not shocked by the occasional blow back. Since profanity is controversial, authors should weigh whether swearing will occur in their books, and if so, what kind and how much.

Consider that these choices apply to a blog too. Readers may forgo your cuss-free book because of cursing on your blog. Just saying.

Certain books lend themselves toward cursing more than others. Carrie Rubin of The Write Transition commented on her blog that, “a 17-year-old, inner-city Cleveland bully would not call his victim a “chubby poo-poo head.” I would agree. The same may apply to a whole host of characters, particularly when they’re in dire straits.

If I’m driving off a the side of a cliff, I might yell something stronger than “Oh, darn it!” My character that’s facing an advancing horde of barbarians might mutter something dicier than “Rats!” And my character that just lost three fingers in a sword fight might cry something more powerful than, “Bummer!”

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For some reason, readers who dislike “real” swear words will tolerate “swear-like” words. Thus, we get fricking, freaking, frigging, fragging, frecking, flipping, and the close call fecking (not a word in the US though we all know what it means). There’s no mystery as to what any of these variations mean, but somehow they’re more acceptable.

Writing fantasy gives me a bit of an out. If I’m inventing a world, I might invent my own cuss words and trust readers to make the leap.

In The Melding of Aeris, the cataclysmic event of the past was The Burn. So cuss words fall along these lines: flaming foul, burn me, foul and fire, burn them… In my current WIP, The Rose Shield, the cussing of one secondary character is a bit more colorful: filching codwit, spanking corker, codding torch-benders, glistering goat-licker… (To avoid mortification, be sure to research your fake words!)

No one seems to mind the bloody violence in my books, but heaven forbid someone says, “Shit!” (There, I said it – grinning foolishly.)

Well, that brings me to The Sorcerer’s Garden. It takes place partly in contemporary times, so I used present day language. Not too foul-mouthed – mostly “crap” and “shit.” A reader didn’t care for the word “shit” and commented on it (it appears 28 times in 90,000 words). I couldn’t add any more “craps,” but I suppose I could have swapped a few out for “darns, rats, and bummers.” I chose not to. The book is written for adults, and though I don’t say that word often in real life, my 28 year-old character is far less reserved.

She is who she is. I took the risk.

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Well, then comes The Bone Wall. Oh dear. A reader mentioned not being able to finish it because of the prevalence of the “f-bomb.”

Now, I’m NOT suggesting that the reader was wrong or unfair. There aren’t hundreds of f-bombs in the book, but there are a lot. Readers are free to like and dislike whatever they want. I will put down books if the writing doesn’t appeal to me, and every reader has the right to do the same. We know as authors that not everyone is going to be a rabid fan, and I knew when I wrote the book that I was poking a few boundaries. I wrote it anyway.

Knowing that I would irritate some readers, why did I do it?

Because I felt it was necessary for the authenticity of the book, characters, and the main character’s arc. The story takes place in a violent post-apocalyptic world. One the main characters goes through a process of hardening, reacting to the brutality of her environment by increasing her own ruthlessness. Her language degrades as her choices and experiences do. Her cursing is in direct contrast to her twin sister, who doesn’t swear at all. To me, the language choices serve a purpose, and I was willing to accept the consequences.

When writing books for adult audiences, authors make choices about profanity, violence, and sex, knowing these are a few of the hot topics that some readers are sensitive to. There are many books with violence that don’t cross the profanity line. Perhaps cussing isn’t a prerequisite for any book. Authors must weigh their creative freedom and choices against offending readers and suffering those unfortunate reviews.

Do your books include cussing? What is/was your decision-making process?

175 thoughts on “Those Darn Cussing Characters

  1. It depends on character and situation. Using tv references, when Sookie Stackhouse says “fuck off” it has power because of how atypical any vulgarity is from her. For Spider-Man in Civil War when he shouts “holy shit!” It’s exactly what a real teen would do in that situation.
    Then there are the times profanity is overused or pointlessly used while trying to convey character in a lazy way. A bad guy who uses the f-bomb frequently, even if that’s how many do in real life, destroys any meaning the shock (yes most are still shocked to hear or read fuck) would have communicated.
    I do my best not to use it in dialogue unless it’s vital to the scene’s emotional impact and even then very rarely.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Glenn. I agree totally. Well-placed swearing can add reality and emphasis to the emotional quality of a scene. Too much and it’s just annoying. It reminds me of the writers’ advice “less is more.” Happy Writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jibby says:

    I always feel like being authentic to the character is best as a reader and therefore, that’s my aim as a writer as well. Then again, I’m not phased by much when it comes to language; I can understand why some readers could be turned off by foul language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think most authors (who are also readers, of course) agree, Jibby. The reality of the characters’ emotions is what keeps in a story. If I lose that, I lose interest. Thanks for the visit and comment 🙂 Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ellenbest24 says:

    Thank you for a really good post. I have to say it made me titter (English word for laugh) , The most important thing for me is that language is part of what needs to be said, like violence, as long as it isn’t gratuitous it stays. A swearing character brings authenticity to your work. “Oh drat, fiddlesticks and bums, I boiled my eggs dry! fiddlededee ho hum. I really didn’t say the last dozen words; I had to censor them. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tina Frisco says:

    The protagonist in my new novel swears when she’s angry or frightened. But she’s learning to hold her tongue and/or change her language, at the bequest of some of those around her. However, “Oh my” just doesn’t cut it when you’re being attacked 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Like you, I’ve had fun creating curse words in my WIP that involves Jean Laffite the pirate–that man (as I write him) has colorful curses!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elizabeth Helmich says:

    I firmly believe that at times it is needed, and warranted, to show the inflection necessary in the story. The true readers will hang on…but I do enjoy real grit in my stories. Life is not all sunshine and roses after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like gritty stories too, Elizabeth. Grimdark fantasy is a favorite on my bookshelves. I agree that there’s a time and place, and I tend to stand by my choices as a writer. You’re right that most readers hang in there. Thanks for the visit and comment. Have a great weekend 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. John Maberry says:

    Especially relevant for memoirs. Kind of hard to be real if you leave out how people (myself included) really talk/talked. When you’re dealing with life in college or the military (or even the Nixon White House if you listen to the tapes) every few words are profane. The F-word is even inserted between other syllables for emphasis–as in outf’ingstanding. As for fiction, it’s a closer call but it’s like a lot of things that there seems to be too much of in some movie genres and perhaps in the written word as well–like how many villains can the good guys/gals kill in how many bloody ways in how short a time. Kind of oversimplifies what might loosely be described as a plot. Too much fricking and fracking and you could have the same problem. Not certain how fair it is to compare movies to books, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t think of it in terms of memoirs, John. That’s a genre where the “truth” of the experience is partly embedded in the language. In most fiction genres I think it’s more in fluid as we want realism but don’t want the language to become a distraction. Sometimes, I think cuss words can become lazy replacments for more interesting language. It’s been an lively topic. Thanks for adding your thoughts. Happy Writing!

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  8. Got a chuckle over this one. A character must stay in character – and time period. Besides you just can’t please everyone. Just tell the story

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve been writing stories and depend more on shock and humor so haven’t needed swear words. Anyone reading a book should know by the description it might contain words objectionable to them. No one is forcing them to read it so why are they complaining? I could never understand that. Interesting topic for a discussion, though. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your stories are great as they are, Suzanne. No need for cussing. I don’t call out the cursing on The Bone Wall, but I do have a general warning. I don’t think readers should be too surprised to find out it’s a gritty book. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Have a great weekend. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Myths of the Mirror. This was a great post that raised a very valid point, but  of course, me being such an idiot roared my head off at the pics Diana created. Brilliant! # […]

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