Sunday, January 8, 2012

Watch your @$%* Language: Sevastian Winters on Cussing in Fiction


I get in trouble from the language police entirely too often in a land where people have supposedly bled and died to give me the right to express myself. As an author, it irks me to no end. Just this afternoon (as I write this) I was debating with another author who found my novel Wolf's Rise graphically violent and laced with too much “profanity” for her tight-ass taste (Yup. Gonna' be that sort of post!).

I replied “No author worth their salt will ever be offended by language. Language is the tool we wield to ply our craft and it must, if nothing else, be real.”

I’m not one to mince words.

She replied, “Any author worth their salt wouldn’t feel it necessary to use the f-word so much. But yes, I know it was your characters speaking. And that’s fine, I get it, some people swear! However, most people around me don’t, henceforth, it’s just as real to not have swearing characters.”

Grammar nightmare aside, who is right?

Um... I am, of course. Why else would I be writing this? Duh!

Here's the thing.... and there is just no getting around it: Characters, just like real people, have the inalienable right to be themselves. Ours is to show their truth… not to judge it, or shape it.

For writers, (or if you, like me, prefer “Very Much Gooder Authors”) the answer about whether or not characters cuss, has nothing to do with culture, religion, nor personal experiences within a usual environment. My stories don't take place in the confines of my usual environment.


The only valid answer to whether or not an author's characters cuss, is attached wholly to the fundamental truth that the characters have the inalienable right to be themselves. Period.

Omniscient, uninvolved narrators should never cuss, or for that matter, use poor grammar, but characters... well that's another thing entirely. If you want to know whether or not your character cusses, ask the character!

Without exception, every character in a story, just like every person on the planet, has a unique relationship with language. I have a nine year old and a twelve year old. My nine year old will boldly say “I didn't know that.” My twelve year old, on the other hand would never stoop so low. Her favorite phrase is “no one told me that.” It seems a subtle difference, but to the eye of a trained author, that difference is everything.

Characters don't just cuss or not cuss. If they don't cuss, we have to ask them more. Why don't they cuss? What words do they use instead? Are there any exceptions? If they do cuss, we want to know more. What is their favorite cuss word? Are they good at cussing? Bad at cussing? Do they cuss a lot? A little? Under what circumstances? Who do they curb their cussing for? Their kids? Old people? Nobody? A Priest? Why?

Bringing a character to life with words requires attention to these sorts of details. And if we who write their stories, fail in our duty to chronicle them as they are, the result of respecting them enough to ask, and then to allow them the freedom to speak and act autonomously, as is their inalienable right, we will never succeed in our efforts to create indelible characters that lead to the author's holy grail: Immortality.

See? I told you I was right! Thanks for reading. Alisha, thanks for having me!


(P.S. If you like adrenaline pumping, visceral stories with believable characters, chest-pounding action, and guts so real you can smell them, my military thriller, Wolf's Rise is for you. Lace up your running shoes! It's time to run with the big dogs!)

15 comments:

Terry LaBarba said...

I have mixed viewpoints. As an author I've had characters cuss, because that's how I heard their dialogue (intuitively). It fit them and the situation. With other novels, I held back due to not wanting to offend my target audience, and I was able to move the scene just fine without it. Both ways work. I don't think cussing should be overused when something spoken that's creatively clever would be more entertaining.

Sevastian Winters said...

Again.... not up to you. Ask you character. They are the only ones who get the right to make those decisions.

Suzanne said...

Personally I find excessive cursing to be due to a lack of a better vocabulary - in real life and in fiction. Cussing where it makes sense or emphasis naturally is fine but overuse just ends up trashy. Unless an author wants their character to sound like they're starring on The Bad Girls Club or Teen Mom then make them do nothing but curse. If not then it needs limits. Real writers "worth their salt" don't overdo it. If it's overdone it's more than likely for shock value to prove a point within the character's words.

Wendy said...

It really depends on the voice...character and narrator. For instance, a friend of mine writes m/m erotica, and in one book, you have a Miami bartender from a strict religious family hooking up with a physical therapist who was sexually abused as a child. The story is told in limited 3rd POV. The latter man doesn't cuss at all. In fact, he's skittish about intimacy altogether and when things do progress, he doesn't use slang for anatomy. He calls things what they are. The bartender...he's a bit more colorful.

It may just be my opinion, but it's not the words themselves that matter, but how they're being used. It's just as inappropriate to overuse proper language, if it doesnt fit the charachter/scene.

If the language of a book makes me uncomfortable, I stop reading. I a solutely believe that writers should write, and they shouldn't alter their voice to avoid offending their potential audience.

Jonathan D Allen said...

Just chiming in with an agreement. In my personal life, I have no problem with cussing so long as it's not meant to hurt someone - I think most folks can recognize the difference between that and a little spicy language. I don't really understand the view that cussing represents a paucity of vocabulary; the view seems unconsciously elitist. If anything, restricting your use of certain words seems to me to indicate a limitation on vocabulary.

But I also recognize that for certain reasons, certain words (even when they aren't meant to hurt) upset people, and I think ignoring that is to your own detriment as a writer. I limit cussing on my own blog out of respect for others' feelings. I do the same in my novels when I write in my own voice.

But as Sevastian said, characters do what they do. Limiting their vocabulary is disrespectful to the spirit of the characters and, I find, a sure way to lose the vital connection between you and the character's psyche. So kudos to you, and I'm glad to see someone say it.

Cathy McElhaney said...

I agree with you Sevastian...I think the characters tell you whether or not hey would cuss and how much. I have one character that wouldn't say Sh*t if she had a mouthful and is very offended by cussing and the other main character is very comfortable with it, although he tried to watch it around her! I think cussing just to cuss is not necessary, but I am not offended by it.

Sky Purington said...

Great post! I'm with Sevastian and Cathy. Your characters will let you know. In one series, I'm writing about three 30-something guys who investigate the paranormal. Of course they cuss! In another tale, my hero is a 6th century Celtic king. He doesn't cuss (least not that we know of ;-)) All and all, gotta go with what works for your characters.

Christina Carson said...

I feel characters must be true to themselves and where they live. For example, Canadians generally swear quite more frequently than Americans and across all social strata. I don't know why, but we do. It's no big deal. So when I place a book in a Canadian setting there will be a good bit of swearing, because that's how we talk. My audience has a choice, read the book or not. My characters, however, don't, for they must authentically represent what and who they are.

Margaret Yang said...

Of course you're right, Sevastian!

The fact that your characters curse freely makes me more likely to read the novel, so it cuts both ways.

Diane Henders said...

Another foul-mouthed Canadian here.

It's definitely determined by the characters and setting. In my novels (set in Alberta, Canada), I have a biker-type character who uses the f-bomb as verb, adjective, adverb and noun in daily conversation. I have a cop who has only used it once in five books; when it comes from him, it has shock value. Yet another male character never, ever cusses. My female protag swears more or less constantly when stressed or frightened.

I realize this means my books will turn a lot of readers off, but I don't have a problem with that. I'm not writing sweet romance.

I also cuss on my author blog. I figure there's no point in creating a platform that's completely different than my books. (Though I do post an f-bomb alert at the top if I'm going to drop one. It's that famous "I don't want to offend anyone" Canadian attitude.)

Sevastian Winters said...

Where the fuck is my 'like' button? ;-)

Zequeatta Jaques said...

Personally, I try not to curse in person. However, I've found that if my characters curse, it is detrimental to the story to censor. I don't like to read a book in which it seems the author uses curse words because it is easier than looking for a better choice.

akimoku said...

I think it is important for the characters to be true to themselves, completely. But I also think that cussing, along with everything else a character does, needs to be tailored to tell the story. I don't want to talk about my character walking across the room if it isn't necessary, and I don't want to record him cussing if it's irrelevant to the scene. Maybe he did walk across the room, and maybe he did cuss, but I hope I never include anything that doesn't need to be there. My characters do a lot of things that aren't on the page: sometimes it's cussing or sex or going to the bathroom, and sometimes it's answering the phone, making breakfast or tripping and falling on their way up the stairs. But if these things are necessary, then they should be there.

R.P. Kraul said...

I've seen this topic come up on writer's sites, and it generally causes a lot of polarization and argument. Here's my take. Should I use profanity: absolutely. Why would I filter my characters? Some people are extremely vulgar, and it you don't know this, you ought to get out more.

That having been said, a writer has to be economical with words, especially in dialogue. A strategically placed cuss-word is more effective than a string of them.

Rick G said...

Agree 100% percent. You need to do what is right for the character. In my series some of my characters curse like they just stepped out of a Quentin Tarantino flick, others don't at all. It all has to do with their personality and what fits for them. You can't bring a character to life if you feel the need to constrain them so as to not offend people.