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?

Should books for adults have content warnings?

image by digitalspy.co.uk

image by digitalspy.co.uk

I told my mother to skip reading my latest book, The Bone Wall. She’s in her 80’s, and I know for a fact that she would find it gruesome and offensive. She thought my other fantasy books were “horror” and wondered why I was so “angry.”

I’m actually a pretty happy-go-lucky person: a loyal friend, loving wife and grandmother, and active volunteer. I like babies and puppies. I’m “nice.”

image from pixshark.com

image from pixshark.com

At the same time, I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, and Anthony Ryan, to name a few. I like gritty realism in my fantasy favorites, and my writing tends to reflect my preferences. I have this “thing” about not sugarcoating brutality.

Yet, as a “nice” person, I also have an aversion to giving offense. I want to move my readers emotionally and perhaps make them ponder choices for a moment of two, but my preference isn’t to trigger outrage or upset. My books are meant to entertain.

image by kaleveradaily.com

image by kaleveradaily.com

The Bone Wall pushed my own limits. Living inside these characters’ heads took its toll. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and stressed out. My heart was forgetting to beat, and when I went to bed at night, I wasn’t convinced I’d wake up in the morning. I ended up at the cardiologist with an exacerbated heart arrhythmia.

Oddly enough, after I finished the first draft, all my symptoms vanished. I wanted to warn my readers: DON’T READ THIS! BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH!

Well, as you might guess, I didn’t put that on the cover. I wrote an Author’s Note and tried to make the blurb reflect the content. Why did I stop there? Or go that far?

image by ethicsalarms.com

image by ethicsalarms.com

As I struggled over whether to warn readers about violence, sex, profanity, and religious content, I wondered if I was over-reacting. Will some readers say, “Gosh, Diana, what’s the big deal? You are such a wimpy drama queen.”

And books are supposed to trigger our emotions to an extent, aren’t they? The struggles our character’s endure and choices they make in the face of physical, moral, or psychic danger is part of what draws us in and engrosses us in the story.

The Bone Wall is not a YA novel. As a parent, I understand the desire to monitor content. Back in the olden days, I would have appreciated a rating on the books my daughter read, if only to engage with her regarding controversial subject matter. Though many YA authors seem to agree that content warnings have a place, differences of opinion continue to exist as to what should be included.

image from blogs.kcrw.com

image from blogs.kcrw.com

Adult readers have years of experience and wisdom to draw on. Our tastes and tolerances vary greatly. My husband likes Mad Max and I like Forest Gump. We have the choice to walk out of a movie or put a book down. I’ve done it, more often because it’s boring or vapid rather than too graphic. I chalk it up in the “oh, well” column and move on.

The Bone Wall is out now. I still muse over this topic and wonder what reader/reviewer reactions will be. I’d love to hear your thoughts about content warnings on adult books. Good idea? Bad idea? What’s your experience as a writer, reader, or both?

Thank you, and hugs from the “nice” me.