I Keep it Clean, I Swear!

WHERE DO YOU stand/sit/lie/dangle on swearing in fiction? I’d assume it will align with how you feel about it in other aspects of life.

For some swearing is a turnoff, end of, there can be no need for it. There is the biblical end of the spectrum whereby to No Profanity Signblaspheme is a terrible thing, it should be avoided always. And there are much more liberal people who don’t mind it providing it has some relevance i.e. profanity is congruent with a character or situation. I’ve always looked at it from the point of view that swearing is just a word or words, nothing more nothing less, comparable to ‘the’ and ‘and’ except they tend to be used in anger or to convey some sort of emotional state. Swear words are expressive. You can swear at a friend with intent or simply as an extension of a sentence. Clearly one of those is not pleasant, so we tend to refrain from swearing at each other for understandable reasons.

Like them or not, swear words pack a punch if used well. Irvine Welsh’s fiction is rammed full of swearwords and he doesn’t hold back in interviews either. Now imagine Trainspotting without any swearing – it would be distinctly strange and inauthentic. I don’t advocate swearing for the sake of it, to get a reaction from the reader like a twelve year old trying to piss off their parents. But within the construct of a fictional world swearing is vernacular webbing for some characters and represents their world(s).

It grates when people complain about swearing in fictional adult settings. Some cite swearing as ignorant, lower class, ugly and even disrespectful. ‘Coarse language’ is a part of English and always will be. When people go to other countries one of the first things you’ll learn is a swear word (providing the hosts are good – I jest, somewhat) and they’ll want to know your native ones also, it’s a very natural thing is the old rude words thing.

So – swearing in fiction? Acceptable? Deplorable? Inescapable? Necessary? How do you feel about it?

17 Comments

  1. is there a time limit, on making comments ha! anyhoo My thoughts on profanity, i normally keep it clean, but sometimes a character is such a rouge, or thug, a complete utter cud and drops a swear word or two, but only in context and never gratuitous and even then would not let said character be overtly blatantly offensive not my style….
    ~B

    1. Yeah I largely agree. Unless the character calls for it, or it is realistic to a situation eg soldiers swear like crazy, then there’s no need for tirades. Cheers for dropping by.

  2. Profanity does not bother me. It really puts situations and a character’s personality into perspective when used effectively and I usually find an honest, visceral and common ground when a character swears smartly (is there such a thing? lol). I do tire of reading it when it is done unsuccessfully/uncreatively, such as when the situation does not call for it. Just like you’ve stated, curses are words just like any other word, and one has to know how to implement it to use it to its fullest potential. C:

  3. Swearing is part of life and if you are to portray life in the form of books, plays or films I think you must include a few words here and there. The problem today is that so often the writer, director, producer or whatever overdoes it. THAT for me is the big turn -off. It’s not only demonstrates a woeful lack of imagination but is also incredibly insulting to the readers/audience, the assumption being that they are uneducated and/or lacking in imagination too!

  4. I think swearing has its place in fiction writing. It can make a character believable. If the language is always clean, that seems contrived. But I think it has the biggest impact when it’s used sparingly. Too many four-letter words seems just as contrived.

  5. If you break “fiction” down into books, films, and comic books, the answers might change.

    When I read an online interview with a book author who advises we avoid cursing, I wonder if he has ever read the comic book series Criminal by Brubaker and Phillips. It seems that if we fill a book full of gratuitous curses, we are perceived as low-class, offensive, or just plain untalented dialogue writers. But, a film or comic book can be loaded with curses and considered awesome.

    My approach in my current set of stories is to maintain a respectable, almost classic tone as a narrator, while having my two main characters cursing a blue streak most of the time. It remains to be seen if readers will dig that or not.

  6. If it suits the deeper level/issues of a character or his/her background, then I think leaving it out would be a criminal disservice to the story. But to just toss profanity around for the sake of doing it gets a little old. Peace . . .

  7. I think that it depends on the situation. If there is no need to include it why bother? But if you are writing a story based around gangsters or as you mentioned heroin addicts how can you not include swear words? It all depends on the characters and the situation.

  8. I only use it dialogue, where appropriate, or in first perton narration at points where the narrator would swear. Too much of it is really tedious to read.

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