This is not a blog about whether or not we should use profanity in fiction. The answer to that is: “Do what the voice demands.”
If your character is the kind of person who would swear in a given situation, by all means, let the filth spit from their lips.
Don’t worry about offending prudes. If you’re specifically writing for prudes, you’ll likely not have any characters that would swear anyway. After all, elves and fairies and kiddy-winks and magic stoats don’t swear, do they? No…
Condescension aside, don’t let causing offence be the deciding factor – “shocking” is one of your tools as an author. Why disarm yourself of one of your tools?
Of course, there is such a thing as overuse. Swearing all the time lessens its impact, and dulls its shock factor. Think about it: what’s more shocking, a teenage boy swearing at his mother? Or a mother swearing at her teenage boy?
Right – the latter, because maybe she’d only swear as a last resort, or because she’s at the end of her tether. Maybe she’s a terrible mother, which might be shocking in itself. Regardless, there is emotional content, to paraphrase Bruce Lee.
What I wanted to explore in this blog is invented profanity.
Made-up swear words are part and parcel of television series. They allow the writers of various genres to circumnavigate the censors by employing words that sound like they could be rude, but that they’ve invented, so they can’t possibly offend.
A prime example is the Battlestar Gallactica reboot’s use of the word “frack” as a thinly veiled replacement for “fuck” that nevertheless avoids censorship. Usage includes:
“There’s no fracking way”
“What the frack is going on?” and
We all know what it means; it’s self-evident from its very usage. In the same way, we (usually) know what the tabloids mean when they fill their copy with as******s (asterisks). The difference is, using “frack” in its many forms allows the actors to utter the profanity with impunity.
This technique is also often used in comedy, from Father Jack’s constant cries of “Feck!” in Father Ted, via the hilarious use of “Smeg” in Red Dwarf, to The Inbetweeners’ ingeniously familiar use of the word, “Clunge”.
Just say it out loud:
Where “feck” is just a shift of the vowel, “clunge” is an expertly sculpted word that sounds awful without ever admitting its meaning. Part cunt, part minge, part lunge – only the teenage harbingers-of-awkward truly know what “clunge” really means. (Or maybe they don’t, maybe the boys just pretend to know; either way, it’s exceptional.)
Rarely, before Game of Thrones, did we have so much profanity in fantasy works, despite the colourful language we have enjoyed since the dawn of English-language literature, with Chaucer’s foul-mouthed pilgrims, not to mention Shakespeare’s celebrated filth.
“Fuck” and “cunt” and “shit” and “piss” are all par for the course now that George RR Martin has reminded us how naughty but nice these words can be.
As for my own work, I am obliged to follow the rules of the world I have invented: the story I’m writing is based in the afterlife, where people only have half-memories of their lives on Earth and members of disparate eras mingle. Technology, culture and language are gleaned from the dreams of those with a rare coupling with the old world.
Initially, I thought I would make up some words. I was worried about causing offence, or that expletives would seem extreme in a fantasy setting.
Far too many times I’ve heard my middle-class Mother say: “Always write as though your Mommy’s reading,” hoping that that would quell the cursing. Well, sorry, but
fuck bollocks to that.
People swear. Teenagers swear, adults swear, octogenarians swear, and – by Jove – the lot of them have been doing it since Neanderthal man said “Ugg” as he gestured clumsily at his own cock.
However, in my timeless world, where elements of culture and language emerge and propagate from disparate eras, mightn’t I take a few curses from Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Shakespearean and merge them with the modern parlance?
I’ve no need to invent words, when so many have come and gone like the dodos of foul language. I have a rich history of insults to draw from, which will both enrich the language and reenforce the concept of overlapping epochs.
You bunch of queyntes.
Wash your mouth out
So, to swear or not to swear? That is the question. Simply put, it depends on your world and on your characters. Consider the cultural and historical setting and let the characters in that environment decide for you.
(That might sound like a cop out, so by all means share your decision (or indecision) in the comments.)
It may be the only aspect in storytelling in which you shouldn’t consider your reader (unless, of course, you’re writing children’s fiction).
Now, sod off.