Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I once had a discussion with a writer who claimed that using four-letter words was lazy, unnecessary and likely to limit one’s readership.

I didn’t agree, partly because I’ve read books with a lot of vulgarity which were nevertheless bestsellers – Stephen King novels and A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance (by the way, check out this alternate title for George R. R. Martin’s books). Kill Bill also would not have had its coarse edginess (which I liked) without the characters’ choice of language.

If a writer is planning to submit to an inspirational fiction imprint like Steeple Hill, that will definitely restrict the language which can be used, but the rest of the time it’s a judgment call. I believe that the choice of words should not be what suits the writer’s sensibilities. It should be what suits the characters and the tone of the work.

With some books, it’s appropriate for the characters to use four-letter words often. With some (like mine), they use the words sparingly. I feel that this makes the words all the more punchy when they do crop up. And some books work fine without any. There are some romance novels where the hero has a manhood, others where he has a penis, others where he has a cock and probably some where he has nothing at all. They all work for their different contexts and readerships.

If a writer doesn’t want to use vulgarity, though, what options are available?

1. Don’t have four-letter words at all.

If you’re searching for a way to alter a character’s dialogue so that, “How could the son of a bitch say that?” passes muster, just change it to, “How could he say that?” Mentioning that a character cursed or swore might also work; the readers can substitute whatever four-letter words work for them.

2. Substitute a made-up word or blank space.

Stephen King does this in Lisey’s Story, using “smuck” instead of another rhyming word. There are two problems with this, though. First, it’s usually obvious to the reader that the concoction stands in for a four-letter word, and in cases like Lisey’s Story, the specific four-letter word that’s being disguised is very clear.

In other words, no one’s being fooled. The character knows what she really means, and the readers know what she really means. It’s the literary equivalent of a fig leaf. So the only reason to try something like this would be to show that this is a character who makes up coy substitutes for four-letter words – perhaps she wants to swear, but feels too repressed to actually say the dirty words.

The second concern I have is that it can come off as silly, e.g. “Tell the mustard to get his bass in here”. On the other hand, this might work very well in a humorous story.

I once read a book where such a word was replaced by a blank line. In the story, someone had spray-painted graffiti on the protagonist’s house:


The narrative went on to state that the last word was an obscenity, but for a moment I thought that the vandals really had spray-painted a horizontal line on the house. It reminded me of the fill-in-the-blank tests we had in elementary school. But this worked brilliantly in a humorous fantasy; Terry Pratchett’s The Truth would not have been the same without Mr Tulip’s constant “—ing”.

3. Substitute a less vehement word.

This is the “Gosh darn it to heck” option, and I don’t recommend it. I once browsed through a romantic suspense novel because a review claimed that the author never used vulgarity. The book starts out well, with the heroine receiving a call from her psychotic ex-husband, who has tracked her down. He describes what she’s wearing, and frightens her so badly that she knocks over a vase of flowers. Then she thinks,

“Oh bother. Look what the idiot made me do.”

The only character who can say “Oh bother” and get away with it is Winnie-the-Pooh. And I’ll bet that if Pooh’s psychotic ex-husband tracked him down, even he would resort to something a little stronger.


Linda said...

Vulgarity, if done well, can be done in a way that's a part of the story. One of my favorite movies is Jumping Jack Flash, in which Whoopi Goldberg uses vulgarity through--and it's funny. A local Christian network trimmed out all the vulgarity for airing on TV, and it lost its humor.

But I've also felt that some authors in my genre are using vulgarity because a particular word has become very trendy, not because it's important to the story or the characters. Basically, in these books, you could edit out the profanity, and no one would notice. But there are books I read where it's as much a part of the book as the characters and the plot (just like Jumping Jack Flash).

And, yes, it can limit readership, in at least one category. A friend of mine had a discussion with his editor about the profanity in his book. The editor strongly recommended that the f-word be removed from his Young Adult book because librarians wouldn't buy it.

Marian said...

Good point about YA books, Linda, though the Gossip Girl series contains a lot of the f-word, and the books seem very popular.

I used to work in a school library, though, and we didn't shelve GG books.

Anonymous said...

Hey Marian,

What it all comes down to for me is, "be true to your characters".

If a character swears, they swear. Now, to fit a younger market or a certain genre, it might be better to write, "He swore under his breath." Rather than writing the actual swear word out. It all depends.

But a writer must remember they are not their characters. If I were to ever write a racist character, I would have to have them say vile, hateful words. *I* hate those words. But such a character would have no problem with them.

GunnerJ said...

No matter what you do, don't make up some fake swear word substitute (shazbot, frack, etc.). Absolutely every time I see that (or hear it in a show) it makes the dialog intolerable.

ChristaCarol said...

I agree with being true to the character. But on the contrary to what gunner said, if it's true to the character for them to say something other than the f-word, like frick, and it is sincerely true to the character, it shouldn't make a difference. Take "Scrubs" for example (sorry, can't think of a book reference at the moment) Elliot constantly says frick. It's hilarious and it works for her character. But putting four letter words in just to have them is where I see crossing the line.

Marian said...

I think my post should have made a distinction between two types of swearing.

1. Four-letter-word used for emphasis.

"Get your frigging car out of the way!"

In this situation, it's easy to either omit the word or replace it with whatever the characters might realistically use to wear. For instance, on Firefly, the replacement word could be "gorram"; on Red Dwarf it would be "smegging".

2. Four-letter-word used to show the coarseness or crudity of an action, or the way a character perceives an action.

Imagine two teenaged brothers talking.

"Mike, you haven't spoken to Dad since the night he drove your girlfriend home. What the heck's going on?"
"He... he didn't just drive her home."
"What did he do, then? Did he tell her to stop seeing you?"
"No, he..."
"He what?"
"He fucked her."

No good euphemism for it here. For me, this is punchy and realistic; to replace "fucked" with anything else would weaken the last sentence.

Kim said...

It has to fit the character and the setting - though a lot of today's swear words were around in the eras I tend to write in, I've never used them. They just don't "fit" with the characters. They swear, but it's either off-camera or using terms that fit more in line with the character him/herself.

Now, in my contemporaries, I use vulgarity when it's necessary and (hopefully) not too often. Again, it's got to fit with the characters or else it jolts me (and I assume readers) out.

Like everything else, it has it's place and part of my job is to make sure I've used it to it's best advantage. Otherwise it's just wasted words.

Marian said...

If I were to ever write a racist character, I would have to have them say vile, hateful words. *I* hate those words. But such a character would have no problem with them.

Absolutely, Tasha. There's a great example of this in Stephen King's It, where a little boy deliberately kills another boy's dog because the other boy is a n***** and he's been taught to hate such people. The horror of that scene would not have had the same impact if King had danced around the n-word.

Marian said...

It has to fit the character and the setting - though a lot of today's swear words were around in the eras I tend to write in, I've never used them.

I rather like some of the old-fashioned swear words, like "bollocks". And British expressions like "bleeding hell".

I'm sure that a writer could dig up some other expressions that would have seemed very shocking or risque for that era, but which may not be as much of a sticking point for readers today.

Angela said...

I think vulgarity can be an effective world byuilding tool, by coming up with something unique or culturally based. There's nothing wrong with swearing IMO, either--IF it's done to add a grittiness or rawness to the character that is backed up by other personaity traits, is done sparingly and with purpose. Great post!