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:
YOU’RE DEAD MEAT, ______
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.