Swearing in Fiction Writing

To $%^* or not to $%^*, that is the question. I’m going to throw out a blanket statement here, and say that every fiction writer worth their ink-stained fingers has learned to step out of their own personality and into another. It’s sort of a prerequisite for being able to write realistic characters. Whether you, as an author, are willing to push those other personalities to their limits, or blush and scribble out the saucy bits to use more polite words, is not something I can discuss without a few psychology textbooks and a bottle of wine. What I can talk about is a tiny bit of realism that helps to create amazing characters.

When was the last time you said a swearword? Was it today? I bet it was this week at least. How many do you say in a day? In a week? Ok, this could get a little out of hand for some of us. Here’s another question: When was the last time one of your characters said a swearword? Think about it if you need to. You can pause this reading and start it again when you’re ready to continue.

This is where I put a short admission. Not every character needs to swear. Admittedly you’re only seeing snapshots of their lives, and it’s absolutely conceivable they do all their swearing off page… But would they?

The Toolbox

A writer has many tools in their toolbox. One entire drawer is devoted to creating characters that are realistic enough to love or hate. The swearword is one of these tools. Swearing can give your characters a huuuuge realism boost if done well. Take this example: The hero gets shot in the ass with a rock from a slingshot wielded by a village brat. What do they do/say? Go ahead and answer, I’ll wait.

“Fie! Po’r knave! Yond did damage mine own buttocks!”

Yours might be better. Here’s a test though. What would you say? What would your best friend say? What would your grandfather say? My guess is that at least two out of three would swear, so why wouldn’t your character swear? The situation is supposed to be amusing, and it’s working! Up until you drop a weak exclamation that flattens the humor quicker than a reverend walking into a bar. You need to tie the bow on that scene with something that makes the reader connect to it. They need to see the humanity in the hero in these instances.

Inappropriate Swearing

Yes, I know. I just told you to use swearwords and now I’m saying they’re inappropriate. Let me finish. A few things can make the use of swearwords inappropriate in your story. You have to know how to use it as a tool, just like anything else. You can’t just throw words into a story and expect them to hold all the emotion you’re trying to build up. They’ll leak.

The setting makes a big impact on how your characters talk, including their swearwords. The specific words used by fantasy, modern, and futuristic characters can be very different. Finding a word displaced in time, or place, can jar the reader out of the flow you’ve created for them and damage your illusion of reality. That’s not to say you can’t use modern swearwords in fantasy settings if you’re using a modern style of dialogue. But if your elf is talking like he swallowed five copies of Tolkien and pops off with a “Well shit, my fairie friend!”, then you have a problem. Make sure your exclamations match your setting.

There are also times of forced swearing that just grate on a reader’s imagination. This happens when a writer, eager to use a new tool, throws in a swearword because they heard it would help their characters seem more real. We as readers can pick that shit up like it’s highlighted in glitter. You can’t just sprinkle them into your dialogue like garnish. Each one should make as much sense as every other word you keep in your story. Also keep in mind which characters would swear, and how much. A little twist can be entertaining, like a nun with potty mouth when she’s in her own cell, but unless it becomes part of what defines your character it’s only going to weaken them. Your characters should stay in character.

Made-Up Words

I’m betting you know at least a few made-up swearwords from the entertainment industry. I’ll list a few here:

The ones you recognize are especially fun because you feel like you have a tiny piece of another world you can carry home with you. The ones you don’t recognize are a little confusing without any context, and even with context can require some explaining. Be careful of creating your own swearwords. If your writing is clear and your reader can pick it up, it can make your world come alive, but if you fumble it… well… you sound like a smeghead.

Young Ears… Uhm… Eyes

Swearing in YA books. There’s a topic for you. Most conservative imaginations will forgive or overlook swearing in adult fiction, but when it comes to naughty words in a school library they’re burning books and selling brownies in the parking lot. The well-meaning parents refuse to admit their teenagers know what these words mean, and don’t want you teaching them.

Conversely, many agents and publishers won’t bat an eye. Some actually like a little swear seasoning on their YA fiction. Why is this? Because teens are buying these books, and teens swear and are often told not to. When they see a book with a younger hero that slips out a bad word once in a while, it helps them connect. It puts the book, and therefore the writer, on the cool team. (Don’t tell them I said that, because the first rule of being on the cool team is not talking about the cool team.)

When working in YA fiction, however, keep your audience in mind. Teens are young adults, and can handle a lot of what full-fledged adults can handle, but if you push the limits too much you’re no longer going to be writing YA so much as early-years adult fiction.

Wrapping Up

Each writer develops a style, and within that style each character has a personality. Don’t be afraid to go beyond your own comfort zone to create characters with off-color personalities. When you need to learn to write better dialogue, including swearwords, the best place to learn is the real world. Observe and imitate. Write what you hear. Let your characters talk to you. And if they swear, don’t bleep them out.