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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Does Profanity have a Role in Fiction?

   
Author Topic: Does Profanity have a Role in Fiction?
Balthasar
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I was reading over the thread entitled, “Excretory comments/situations,” and it reminded me of a question I’ve been thinking about for a while. Does profanity play a role in fiction?

When Hemingway was writing, certain words were forbidden. “Damn” and its Divine modifier, along with “S.O.B.,” were the worst things a character could say. Now it seems that the only restriction is what an author puts on him or herself.

Here are my own thoughts. Profanity is an unpleasant fact—people cuss. But not everyone cusses, and not everyone considers the same words cuss words. I know a guy who would never say s**t, but he has no problem saying crap. I don’t really get that.

My father comes from the substitution-school. “Gee wiz” and “darn it” and “for Pete’s sake” take the place of the real thing. When he gets really mad, he’ll say “damn.” My mother, however, has no problem with “damn” and all it’s variants as well as S.O.B. and “s**t.” But she hates any word that denotes genitalia or the sexual act. Other people, such as I was in high school, can’t talk without using certain words.

Certainly, the list can go on.

My point is this: Profanity, probably more than any other way of speaking, is something intrinsic to a person’s character—be it gender, or upbringing, or religious disposition, or age, or anger-level. A woman who says, “I want you to f**k my brains out,” is a certain kind of woman. We see her; her words point toward her character, her ethical sense, her upbringing, and even her level of self-esteem.

I don’t want to compound examples. My basic point is this. I think profanity is something that reveals character; it says something about who a person is. The problem with an author like Stephen King is that there’s no discretion in who uses profanity and who doesn’t. Everyone does, even the narrator. But if you look at Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, one character is particularly prone to cuss, and that says a lot about who this character is.

The short answer to my own question is this: Yes, profanity has a role, and it’s role is to reveal character; therefore, it should be used very carefully.

Here’s my question to you all: Is this something you’ve thought about? Dose profanity have a role in your fiction?

PS -- I suppose I should have included the place of eternal damnantion, but the fact that I didn't probably says something about my own understanding of the word, "hell."

Another question for you all is this: How do you determine what is profanity and what is not? I take the view that if I wouldn't say it in front of the Pope, then it falls in the realm of profanity.

[This message has been edited by Balthasar (edited September 23, 2003).]


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daovinci
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I agree that the use of profanity can be useful in showing a character's...well, character. I have characters who do, who don't and who use the substitution method you mentioned.

But more than that, profanity can also help establish the mood, the environment in which your story takes place.

Take, for example, Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." The language and the violence are indeed gratuitious. And, as the name and it's blatantly displayed definition in the opening of the movie suggests, it is not only appropriate, but expected within the context.

However, if you pay attention to the symbolism and the disjointed patchwork of the narrative thread, the movie is, beneath the surface, a story of sublime redemption. The gratuitousness of the language and violence, as well as the sordid nature of the characters, serve to make the redemption story that much more remarkable.

Also, you are being to harsh on King. While he is liberal with his use of profanity, it really isn't as pervasive or gratuitous as you make it out.

My two cents. Thanks for the discussion.


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Christine
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There are two things to keep in mind when talking about profanity. The first has already been discussed..does the character cuss and if so, how?

But there's more to think about than the character. There's also the audience. Most people cringe when they see or hear cussing, at least, the people who are most likely to read the books I write. This doesn't mean never it means only when necessary.

Here's another trick. Just because you have a kid on drugs who's had a rough life and cusses in normal conversation doesn't mean you have to use the word! Use substitutes such as: "A string of profanity escaped his mouth." or "He cussed fluently, causing the old lady walking by to wince."

Just because your character cusses, doesn't mean you have to. Cussing in books will cause readers to put it down, myself included. That doesn't mean that when someone gets hit in the face by an anvil they shouldn't say "s*#t" But there is a limit. I wish I could give you a mathematical formula for what that limit is, but there isn't one.


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Nexus Capacitor
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I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and I was a little bothered by something in it. (I promise not to spoil anything that isn’t already on the back cover of the book.) The main character, Shadow, goes home for his wife’s funeral. His wife’s friend tells him “she died with Robbie’s c*ck in her mouth!” Occasionally, through the rest of the book Shadow will ponder about it. “I keep imagining her with his c*ck in her mouth” and “He thought about how she died with his c*ck in her mouth.”

He doesn’t change the phrasing or think about it differently. It seems to me that Gaiman’s use of language is meant to shock. It seems forced. Maybe he though it was necessary to make an otherwise excellent story seem more “adult.”

The other profanity in the book (arguably worse words) seems natural and appropriate to me. But that one line repeatedly pulls me out of the story. (Only briefly, but it does.)

I guess what I’m saying is: Profanity does have a place, but it should be used carefully, in natural conversation or exclamations of surprise or anger. If you’re trying to shock me, the reader, I’ll notice that’s what you’re up to.


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Jules
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One thing that worries me especially in the case of science fictin is that profanities change in their meaning and usage much more than other words of our language. A hundred years ago, nobody would say the kind of things that have become commonplace today. So what will they be saying in a hundred years?

I think there are three options:

- ignore it. You're "translating into current usage" (i.e. using artistic license to gloss over the issue) [see note 1]
- make up new phrases. This makes your work harder to understand, but nicely circumvents the shock factor [see note 2]
- use reports as suggested above, although this feels kludgy to me.

[note 1]

In the novelisation of "Star Trek: the Motion Picture", Kirk says S***. It is then explained that this is an archaic expletive that his grandfather had taught him. Which I thought was amusing.

[note 2]

The new made up phrase approach was used to good effect in the TV series 'Firefly', IMO. In this series, the word 'goram' (or something similar) was used frequently and to good effect. The derivation of this is quite obvious, which makes it seem more believable to me. Also, throughout the series another language (I can't remember which one, some asian language) was used on occasions. So phrases from this language were also frequently used when something stronger-sounding was needed. Almost nobody would have understood what was being said, which is wonderful! It just sounded good.


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daovinci
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"One thing that worries me especially in the case of science fictin is that profanities change in their meaning and usage much more than other words of our language."

Actually, profanity is a remarkably steady part of the language. It is not nearly as transient as slang.

Sh*t, d*mn, f*ck, and many other of the more common (and more vulgar) date back at least to Middle English, with only minor variations in spelling. There are some words which were once harmless, but have since picked up vulgar connotations.

But many of our "modern" expletives have been in use for centuries, and will probably be popular for many generations to come.


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Balthasar
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Daovinci is right -- profanity seems to hold its meaning. Of all people, C. S. Lewis wrote a paper on the use of profanity in Greek literature (a friend of mine told me about it, but I've never read it), and in it he shows the general meanings of profanity are pretty consistent. It seems that throughout all time, profanity has focused on four things: God or the divine, bodily functions, sex, and the body parts used in sexual acts. Strange that it's those four things. Certainly we're not trying to raise the toilet to the heavens. Rather, it seems that the divine and the act that brings human beings into the world are being dragged through the sewer. Odd, isn't it?

I think Christine brings up a good point--Should we be concerned with what our audience thinks? My initial answer is no. For every person who doesn't like profanity in their stories, there is a person who, though they may not like it, they demand an honest account of their characters and the way their characters speak.

Of course, if you're writing for young adults, profanity should be non-existent -- or at least be kept as innocuous as possible.

This brings up another point. What if you're writing in a genre that a lot of kids read -- such as the science fiction and fantasy? Should an author say, "I'm not going to write anything beyond a PG or a PG-13 rating?"

Obviously a writer shouldn't write anything that offends his or her ethical sense. If profanity in fiction bothers you to the point where you'd rather not read a novel, then you shouldn't use it yourself.

[This message has been edited by Balthasar (edited September 23, 2003).]


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srhowen
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PG or PG-13??

Anyone see Disney's Small Soldiers? It's rated G or at the most PG. In the very first scene a man in a business suite lets out a string of swear words including F**k.

I read a story once where even the author used swear words. Not just the characters--it turned me off the story.

I'm not a prude, I worked as a mechanic when women didn't work on cars--least wise at the local Olds dealer, I learned to swear with the best of them. But this bothered me. If there is author voice, or even third person whatever I expect the author voice not to swear. First person I may excuse unless it gets too much.

Even then, I may cuss when I work on a car--but I don't think that way. Odd. I don't set out to work on the f'n hunk-o-junk. But I will call it that as soon as I bash my knuckles for the 5th time in a row--after other “I hope the neighbors aren’t listening” words.

Also there is the impact of carefully placed swear words. A single word used in the entire book will stand out as making that scene in its own way very memorable.

Shawn


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Hildy9595
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What is or is not too much profanity is a tricky issue. What may offend some readers might not be a blip on the radar to others.

Real life example: I was raised by a mother who cursed like a sailor. Because of this, I have nearly no reaction at all to the most creative, down 'n' dirty curse words when I hear or read them. However, I recognize that not all people feel the same way, so when I write, I am careful to use just enough to keep a given character's conversation realistic, but try to avoid putting strings of expletives in their mouths.

I suppose you need to gauge your audience, as mentioned before...if you're writing for YA, keep it to a minimum (if at all); if you're writing for twenty-one and above, keep it realistic without going over the top.


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Christine
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Balthasar, of course you cannot always play to the audience. No matter what you write some people won't like it. And I've put curse words in stories before. For example, I'm afraid I just could not find any other way for a person to reasonably react when they saw their husband with another woman.

But in the case of cursing there is a balance you can strike with your audience. I consider *every* curse word I am considering putting in a story. If you have too many curse words to consider every one then I'm afraid I won't be reading your book, but don't let me stop you, plenty of others will.

I ask:

1. What situation prompted this character to curse? (It's always in character because I use 3rd person limited pov, so even the narration is the thoughts of a character.)
2. Is it reasonable that this situation would bring out such a response?
3. Would my character reasonably be expected to curse in this situation? (Going to character sheets.)
4. Would a substitute such as "He cursed." be good enough in this situation? (If emotions are charged, probably not.)

These are the things i ask myself when considering a curse word in my own writing, and honestly, I think I ask these questions when I'm reading too. Curse words snap me out of a story, I don't know why. I keep reading once I've satisfied myself that the word is reasonably used. But reasonably used or not, if I keep getting snapped out of the story I will put the book down eventually.

That's as close to quantifying this subject as I think I can get.


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writerPTL
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I don't understand why the characters can use it but the author can't. Shouldn't the narration reflect the characters and especially in third person limited be their viewpoint anyway? Why would a character say Damn it! but not think it? And of course, in 1st person, it's all dialogue anyway.
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Survivor
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Because very few intelligent, literate people express their emotions by swearing all the time. This is for several reasons, but it mostly boils down to two things.

First, swearing is the least intellectually challenging (and stimulating) means of expressing oneself, as it proceeds from and only affects the emotions. You will never score points as a thoughtful person by swearing, and swearing is completely unpersuasive to intelligent people.

Second, swearing is patently offensive to most individuals, intelligent or not. The purpose of writing can be to shock and offend, of course, but reading is an inherently voluntary activity. You can tie someone to a table and force them to listen to your curses, but you cannot tie them down and force them to read such things.

As for narration particularly, it is a mistake to assume that POV narration should be in the exact words the character would have chosen. After all, most characters would describe their actions in first person, and frankly wouldn't describe most of them at all. The third person narrator is just that...a third person that has access to (not identity with) the POV character's thoughts.

As for first person accounts, if these are not framed in the context of the character later writing down his or her account of the events of the story, then I generally find them completely inferior to third person accounts in every way. If they are framed in the conventional fashion, then an inherent part of the frame is the idea that the character is speaking to an audiance, and the rules for realistic portrayals of a writer come into play. Realistically speaking, literate persons understand (either consciously or not) just how foolish and purile profanity looks in print.

Of course, not all writer's understand this, but most do, as do the vast majority of adult readers.


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srhowen
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Wait, wait--I agree with Survivor. A golden and rare moment. Well, I don't agree about first person--it can be done well, but rarely is.

I can read a character who swears and cusses his heart out--that's the character. While I swear myself at times--I don't care for the crowd that has to use the F word as a predecessor to everything they say.

Gratuitous swearing is of no use to me—what is the point? If a character uses it all the time, it shows me something about that character. I may cringe at every instance of the character’s ignorance and lack of education. But if the author shows me the same thing—ugh. I put the book down. It makes the author look like an idiot.

And you will be hard pressed to sell the book or story. While a character swearing may go by just fine.

We, as authors, are supposed to have a better command of the language than others. If we resort to swearing, a substitution for more descriptive words (well, swearing can be descriptive)(but I think you follow), an easy out—hey everyone knows what Sh** is—then we lessen our value (and the respect we expect for years of work on our projects) in the face of people saying, “Hey I could F’n write like that.”

If you take the time to use a higher standard—well, that is not so easy to imitate.

Shawn


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James Maxey
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I'm a little bothered by the notion that "most" people are offended or uncomfortable with profanity. In relaxed social settings it seems to me that profanities, obscenities, and scatologies are fairly common. I also see no evidence that foul-mouthed comics or singers suffer any real loss of audience, nor do movies with cussing seem to be blown out of the water by movies without cussing. However, I'm willing to accept that my own social circles may be non-representative. Does anyone know of any studies on cussing that have gathered statistics on A: What percentage men cuss, women cuss, blacks, whites, and striped people cuss, B: What frequency said cursing is done at, and C: how many people avoid entertainment that contains cussing. I tried googling for the information but got bogged down pretty quickly with useless leads.

Thanks,
James Maxey


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Christine
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I, too, have found a rare moment in which I agree with survivor.

Anyway, James, I have a couple of counterpoints for you. First of all, just because a person cusses does not mean they want to hear cussing. When I'm really upset you can get a cuss word out of me, but perhaps for the very reason that I know how upset I have to be to cuss I cringe when I hear it from others. So studies on the frequency with which people cuss would be of limited value.

Second, I am incredibly put off by vulgar movies. In fact, I have walked outo f them. Unfortunatley they already had my money before I left. I do find South Park highly amusing, but that was for different reasons and it was a rare exception. Most movies would have been funnier without the cussing, if they were trying to be funny, and more dramatic without the cussing, if they were supposed to be dramatic. It's like Survivor said, cussing is a poor substitute for intellect and is base and relies completely on emotions. As for cussing in music, I don't know who listens to that stuff. I'm really not in a position to comment on that audience as I've never had an actual friend who liked it. (acuantances, rarely, but not friends)

My point is that you're talking about different audiences: book, music, and movie audeinces overlap but I bet you find that the people who don't like cussing in one medium don't like it in another, and i suspect that readers tend not to be the cussing sort.

I would love to see a study on this, I don't know if one has ever been done, because I'm talking worse than generalities, I'm talking *suspected* generalities. So if anyone's ever heard of anything scientific looking at any of this, let us know.

Edited: I remember why I thought readers might not be the cussing sort. I have read studies that have found scifi and fantasy readers to generally be above average in intellgence. When I think of cussing I do not think of intelligent people. The logic is faulty, I know, but that's where my gut feeling came from.

[This message has been edited by Christine (edited September 25, 2003).]


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glogpro
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That is interesting, that bit about intelligence vs acceptance of cussing. Looked at rationally and logically, the proscription of one set of words and acceptance of another doesn't make much sense. If someone says "Oh SHIT!" that is unacceptable (at least to some of us), but if he said "Oh FECES!" that would be acceptable? Or what about disguising the words. If I say "You are out of your frikking mind" you know that the f word I used is simply a stand in for another f word. But the rules say that one is permitted and the other is not. None of this makes sense to me. Of course, language is defined by the users, and different subpopulations evolve different usage. So, in some parts of the culture, the insertion of the VBFW (very bad f word) in just about every clause is not a form of swearing, and should be neither more nor less offensive than the omnipresent "like" favored by the social groups of my teenage children. ("Like, I saw Stevie at the mall, and she was like all over Todd -- it was like totally disgusting ..."). Now that I think about it, I really am as offended by the "likes" of this sort of speech as I am by the omnipresent use of the VBFW.

But is it really true that "swearing is patently offensive to most individuals, intelligent or not"? That has not been my experience. I have moved in and out of many social and work communities in my life, and generally found most people to be tolerant of the use of words that are officially naughty.

Perhaps it goes back to a more fundamental character trait, having to do with respect for authority and the belief in following the rules. Do you cringe when you hear grammar mistakes? (I seem to recall a frequent poster complaining recently about misuse of effect and affect.) Is that because someone else is breaking the rules? And why is that important to you? YOU know the rules, and YOU abide by them, why can't those OTHER louts? The truth is, some people, even highly intelligent people, simply don't accept arbitrary rules that have been laid down by other people. Then again, as the rules are socially established and transmitted, they will vary in different social groups. In one culture it might be considered rude and insulting to look directly into another's eyes, in another it is considered strange not to. Just so, in one character's mouth, use of the VBFW could be a sign of rebellion, while in another's it is simply, like, noise.

I think Christine has raised a significant point here. A swear word that is used frequently by a character has no particular emotional freight -- it is just filler, like "like". On the other hand, if you put a swear word into the mouth of someone who NEVER swears, it can convey extreme emotional agitation. And when you hear a swear word in that sort of situation, you KNOW the person is upset. Likewise, a swear word used by a person in an unemotional way could be a sign of rebellion in the proper social context. But in a different context, I doubt it would be considered a sign of anything. Specific example: my 19 yr old son casually uses the VBFW in family settings. That seems to be a sign of rebellion, because it is not considered socially acceptable in that setting, as he is frequently reminded. On the other hand, the frequent use of the word on the streets of South Central probably carries no significant meaning at all.

One might even suggest a mechanism by which such a state might evolve. My son uses swear words in the home as an act of rebellion. When he is with his friends, the use of that word is no longer a sign of rebellion. On the contrary, it is a sign of shared experience. He and his friends are all rebelling together. They use that word frequently to assert their fellowship in this rebellious act, and to identify themselves as members of their group. Over time, their use of the word becomes a habit, and eventually loses all meaning. As new people join the group, they might pick up the language completely innocently, because they hear it used all the time.

Anyway, it seems to me that swearing is a part of living language. It has many nuances, as suggested above. In writing it can be used for many reasons, either to convey strong emotion, or identify members of particular classes, or to make dialog authentic. But in SF we can use the concept of swearing in a different way -- not by including particular swear words in usage today, but by employing the *phenomenon* of swearing to enrich the texture of the cultures we invent. For this purpose, the actual words used can be completely made up, or words that are not swear words in our culture but become swear words in the cultures we write about. Heinlein did this. I remember one particular instance: the word was kink. Douglas Adams, too, had characters making invocations in the name of the Great Zarquon.

So, in conclusion, (are you still with me????) my answer is YES, profanity DOES have a role in fiction, and probably a unique role in SFF.

[This message has been edited by glogpro (edited September 25, 2003).]


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Narvi
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I don't find swearing offensive. It does have its own emptional load -- enough to jump out a little, but that's often desired. It doesn't really carry much information, so a lot of it gets annoying. Writing full dialogue for a character who swears every other word is like writing dialect -- it just annoys the reader. As Tolkien said:
quote:
Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, ... and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find.

You should spare your readers long sections of profanity just as you should spare them long sections of foreign language or technobable.

Now, an occasional swear is a different manner. It can show a bit about character -- almost everyone swears eventually, but some people take more provacation than others. On very rare occasions, it can actually carry information: "The core bubble has a crosslinked interaction wth the transgravitational wave -- shit!" Until the "shit", the reader couldn't know this is a bad thing. I doubt this is a good idea, however, technobabble the reader can't follow seldom is. Better might be: "he spoke a long stream of incomprehensible technical jargon, the gist of which was that we were all about to die."

Incidentally, swearing can be inverted. If the circumstance is extremely severe, swearing can show even-temperedness, and add humor to a piece. My favorite example (from Mercedes Lackey's _Born_to_Run_):

quote:

"Ross . . . this is all that's left of your 'Cuda. You hit this bridge doin' one-forty, and you never walked away from it."

The cigarette slipped from Ross' fingers and rested in the dry grass. It smoldered, but didn't set fire to the grass it landed in. The energy field around Ross Canfield crackled like a miniature thunderstorm, apparently invisible to him.

"Ross, look over there." Tannim pointed at the Mustang, and at the man still sitting on the hood. "That's me."

Ross took a deep breath, stooped to pick up his cigarette, and returned it in his mouth.

Here's where it hits. I can handle it; he's not too powerful . . . I hope. Tannim built up his defenses, preparing for a mental scream of rage. . . . Or worse. Sometimes they don't just blame the messenger, they kill the messenger. I hate this part.

Ross bit his lip, shock plain on his face as he realized the meaning of Tannim's words.

"Never . . . walked . . . away. . . ."

Tannim nodded, ready to strike back if Ross broke and gave in to the rage building in him. "So I'm dead, huh?"

Tannim could feel the energies arcing between them, screaming for focus. . . .

Hoo boy. Now so am I.

"That's right, Ross. You died three years ago, right here. I'm sorry, really. . . ."

Ross Canfield pulled himself up to his full height, towering over Tannim by almost a foot, eyes glowing red with fury as he seethed. His fists clenched tighter, then relaxed slowly and finally opened. His broad shoulders slouched as his aura dimmed to orange, red tinges slithering away into the ground. He inhaled one massive breath, pulled a hand back through his hair and said—

"Well, shit."


So I guess my point is that profanity has its place, but continous profanity is just dumb and annoying. That's my opinion, anyway.


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daovinci
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Well said, Glogpro.

To add (briefly), the question of whether profanity has a role in fiction depends largely on the role fiction plays in society. And fiction is many things to many people.

Some simply enjoy a quick, action-packed escapist read. Others, an emotionally challenging, thought provoking read. Still others an intellectually challenging, thought provoking read. And many of us, I'd wager, like a little bit of everything, depending on our mood at the moment.

However, as with anything, profanity is nothing more than a literay device. Whether it works or not depends on (a) the intended purpose of its inclusion, (b) the expectations of the reader set by the author in the beginning of the story and (c) the skill of the author in employing the device.

To say profanity offends everyone and should be used sparingly is a gross generalization which is obviously untrue to anyone who sees how many people's choice awards shows like The Sopranos garner each year. However, like any tool a writer has, it can be overdone.

If you feel it needs to be in your story to serve a purpose, be it characterization, setting the mood or environment or simply for shock value, if that's your thing...go for it.

For me to tell someone they CAN'T use any words they want is censorship. And i can't be party to that.

If I don't like it, I simply won't read it. You can return a book that doesn't fit just as easily as a sweater or a pair of pants.

[This message has been edited by daovinci (edited September 25, 2003).]


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Christine
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quote:
To say profanity offends everyone and should be used sparingly is a gross generalization

I don't think anyone said that. Only that it offends many people.

quote:
For me to tell someone they CAN'T use any words they want is censorship

True, but I don't believe anyone was telling anyone what they could and could not do.

A lot of good points have been made here, and I think at the heart of it all we're agreeing with one another. There is nothing you CANNOT do when it comes to writing, it's one of the reasons I took up the craft.

Yes, there's a but coming...but if you want it published and if you want people to read it then you have to be aware of the consequences of the decisions you make every step of the way. That's all I've been trying to say about cursing, though I've gotten side tracked.

Answer to original question....yes profanity has a place in fiction. It has a place in the works of those authors who choose to use it and in the minds of those readers who choose to read it.


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Kolona
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For me, the sexiest line in a song ever was Neil Diamond singing, “Now I’m not a man who likes to swear, but I never cared for the sound of being alone.” A man so in control of himself, so determined to be unmanipulated by events outside of himself, that he doesn’t swear…<swoon>. And when that sort of man does swear, it is a momentous occasion.

Generally, though, Survivor was right on and the old saying is valid: “Profanity is the desperate attempt of a feeble mind to express itself.” I might add, “Obscenity is the desperate attempt of the uncreative mind to express itself.” The proliferation of profanity and obscenity overall go hand in hand. Entertainment (whether books, movies or television), education, family life, government -- no venue is immune. If profanity evidences lack of intelligence, and lack of intelligence begets profanity, we are on a downward spiral in the dumbing down of education and the coarsening of culture.

A recent study by the Family Research Council found that “During the so-called ‘family hour,’ from 8-9pm, foul language increased by 94.8 per cent between 1998 and 2002....It rose by 109 per cent during the 9 pm hour in the same period.” That’s significant. See http://NEWS.com.au/common/story_page/0,4057,7350597%255E1702,00.html

Mothers swear at their children, something unheard of not that long ago, and fathers no longer censor themselves in family settings. Is it any wonder children swear with a regularity that didn’t exist twenty, thirty years ago? Or that education standards have fallen? We use profanity like a verbal pacifier, plugging up our mouths with easy shock value instead of developing true language skills.

quote:
Anyone see Disney's Small Soldiers? It's rated G or at the most PG. In the very first scene a man in a business suite lets out a string of swear words including F**k.
And The Borrowers and myriad others. Is it any wonder children’s entertainment has gratuitous objectionable aspects? Everywhere, we and our children are inundated with the least common denominator of expectations. We’re repeatedly presented with the basest solutions. “F**k you” is so much easier than “We have a problem, let’s work it out.” A roll in the hay is so much more entertaining than virtue. And we must, by all means, inculcate the newest generations into this mindset, lest they remind us of the nobler path not taken.

Personally, I’ve read far less over the years and have avoided more movies than I would have liked to – and have been disappointed by much that I have read and seen. Romance novels? “Romance” is too romantic a word for them. “Pornography” is more apropo. Even Star Trek has succumbed to swearing and the almost regulatory bare-breasted scene. So I’m watching even less television and finding it harder to spend my entertainment dollar. I’m sure I’m not alone.

quote:
Should we be concerned with what our audience thinks?
If we’re looking to sell books, of course. At the Columbus Writer’s Conference, some publishing types urged us to buy more books. My response? Print more books I’d want to read. (Or movies I’d want to see. Or television programs I’m not embarrassed to watch with my kids and grandkids.)

quote:
The truth is, some people, even highly intelligent people, simply don't accept arbitrary rules that have been laid down by other people. Then again, as the rules are socially established and transmitted, they will vary in different social groups.
Sometimes rules aren’t as arbitrary as they seem, and the relativity argument is too often an excuse to do away with the rules.

quote:
For me to tell someone they CAN'T use any words they want is censorship. And i can't be party to that.
I’m against censorship, too, although I am partial to censure. Just because we can write or print what we want, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. I firmly believe there is a debasement that takes place when “anything goes.”

quote:
Answer to original question....yes profanity has a place in fiction. It has a place in the works of those authors who choose to use it and in the minds of those readers who choose to read it.
That place, though, is better if greatly circumscribed and restrained. Otherwise, it loses its impact as a literary device and, in an oddly converse way, too greatly negatively impacts life and culture.

My two cents. Adjusted for inflation, of course.


[This message has been edited by Kolona (edited September 25, 2003).]

[This message has been edited by Kolona (edited September 25, 2003).]


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EricJamesStone
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I know plenty of people who will be turned off by a book or movie because it has "too much swearing."

I don't know anyone who will complain of a book or movie having "not enough swearing."

So, I think the question of profanity usage in writing boils down to this: is the effect you're trying to achieve by using profanity worth alienating some of your audience?


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Thieftess
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You know, this sounds a lot to me like the good vs. evil discussion. I think what it really boils down to is perception. "Profanity" itself is only such because the individual says it is so. Like a religion, it holds a unique meaning for each of us.

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. A word is only "bad" if you make it bad. Socitey has defined what these "cuss words" are. It is, as has been observed, a personal choice to use them, read them, or accept them.

As writers, we are artists using words as our medium. We are the molders of the worlds where we decide what is "profane" or not, but we always have to take into account that we are always influenced by current society. We have our own perceptions of how strong these words are -- this one is common and mild, that one is rare and harsh -- and we use them to describe our characters and define our worlds to our readers.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is you as a writer. Be true to yourself. If you feel uncomfortable, don't force it. If you want to make your readers uncomfortable (as in the Gaiman reference) you have that power. If you unconsciously make them so uncomfortable that it distracts from the story -- well, that's what they make editors for.

As always, that's just my opinion; I could be wrong...


Alethea


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Bene_Gesserit
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I think profanity is the crutch of an inaticulate mind. It doesn't do much work except to show anger or lack of words. As for me too much of it really takes away from a story. Several Gaiman stories turned me off to his writing. That's my 2 cents.
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srhowen
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So it has a place--but I think the greatest question is--what -place--

with a character to show what sort of person that character is? Yes, I think so.

I have a character in my latest book who only swears when very upset. When he uses that single swear word it has impact. I have another story where one character uses the VBFW like teens use like. It says something about this character.

Perception.

Yes, we can swear--but by doing so you put yourself into a class or stereo-type. I see a crowd of people standing around outside wal-mart at 2am and they are all using the VBFW and other assorted bits of profanity--I make a wide berth around them and feel uneasy. Why? Because the swearing fits a stereo-type. My mind says, “Great I'm going to get mugged.”

If I see a crowd of people standing there and they are speaking about the same topic, but they are not using profanity and swearing I will probably walk right by them without a thought.

Right or wrong this is the perception most people will have. So your reader will have that sort of perception about the characters who use profanity. Yes, it has a place.

But the narrative—that goes to the stereo-type as well. How do you as the author want to come across?

Shawn


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Balthasar
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So far, very thought-provoking. I agree with Shawn and Survivor about the narrator using profanity. I have an idea of my own, but it's pretty high-minded.

The French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, said that there are two levels at work in a piece of ficton: the apparent level and the underlying philosophical level. A work can only be judged as morally good or bad on the underlying philosophical level -- on the level of the world view that the author presupposes.

On the apparent level, you can have your characters saying and doing all kinds of things that would run contrary to traditional standards of decency (note: I am not saying that these standards are either right or wrong, but that they just are). But just because you have a foul mouthed man who commits adultry, murder, child abuse, and so forth, that does not mean that the piece of fiction is bad in a moral or ethical sense. Some people, unfortunately, would see it that way. But, as a previous member commented, sometimes the most sordid people and events provide the ground for the most compelling stories of redemption.

Here we are at the threshold of the philosophical undertones of a work. What is the author trying to say? What does the author intend for the work to mean? The use of profanity by the narrator underminds this (provided that the narrator is neither in first person nor is relating the thoughts of a person; and by the way, people do thing with profanity. How many perverted men out there think to themselves, "Boy, I'd like to f**k her"?) The narrator is supposed to be invisible. When profanity is used by the narrator, he or she is inserting him or herself into a story -- he or she is making a moral comment about the story -- instead of letting the story make the moral comments.

For example, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, Greene often says about the main character, "his virginity was aroused." We know what that means, and we know the narrator is speaking. But in the hands of a writer like Stephen King, it becomes, "he got a hard-on," or "he wanted to do her," or some other nonsense like that. The problem with King's approach is that it's ambiguous--we don't know if the character is thinking or if the author can't think of a better way to describe the event. With Greene, it is clear that no one would say, "oh, my virginity is aroused," and we know that the author is simply telling the event as clearly as possible.

King ends up blurring the line between the apparant story and the philosophical underpinnings of his work. And in my opinion, this otherwise incredible storyteller will never be considered a great literary figure of the later 20th century -- regardless of the delusions OCS has on this matter.

Profanity -- whether we like it or not -- has a moral dimension. It always has, and it always will. I disagree with the member who said that profanity is a matter of convention. Sure, there are some words (such as "gay") which have changed meanings, but profanity is farily constant throughout language and cultures. (Why do you think kids always seem to learn the bad words of a given language?)

Every author needs to remember that profanity does in fact have a moral dimension, and they need to respect that. They also need to realize that when, as a narrator, they use profanity, they blur the distinctions within their work and thereby blur any possible meaning their work might have.

[This message has been edited by Balthasar (edited September 25, 2003).]


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Necessary
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I think that the use of vulgar language directly reflects one's character, as said above, but I think that it definitly has a place in fiction. I think that just as different people have different morals and values, so should those in a work of fiction. I mean, the whole goal is to make the characters believable, right? I have met very few people (aside from my grandmother) who have never used a cuss word or two.
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writerPTL
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It must be a generational thing. I am in high school now and the kids that don't cuss at least a few times a week are extraordinarily rare. In marching band nearly everyone does--like another poster said, I guess it's the shared rebellion thing. It's not just some sleazy 2 am Wal-Mart people or whatever . . . these are honor students and leaders who will go on to successful careers. In the same way that TV has declined (if that's your view of it), standards of acceptability also have, at least in the youth.

I understand about the narration, I suppose, but nothing other than boredom (usually because the story is taking itself incredibly seriously when it's not worthy of that, ie, A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice) has ever turned me off from a story. What, you can kill entire alien species but you can't have graphic sex or some F words along the way? You can slay an unlimited amount of orcs as long as you don't say "They slayed the shit out of them"? Seems a little backwards, considering cussing is a made-up distinction between words and violence is an actual action that hurts.


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Goober
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"Seems a little backwards, considering cussing is a made-up distinction between words and violence is an actual action that hurts."

Thank you for saying this.

I use quite a bit of vulgarity in my day to day life. In my Art History course I use slang terms and vulgar language while taking notes. Its just how I present the world to myself. I dont think any word is "Bad", but any word can be made bad in context. There are some times you just dont say certain things, but its all just arrangements of sounds and letters.

That said, too much swearing would be like overusing any word or group of words. Its like the "he said" dilemma. Find another way to say it, or the phrase gets boring. If you say "f-you" 100 times I wont be offended by the words but by your limited vocabulary.

And of course, even then, you can make it a character thing.


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Survivor
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Reading this thread, I thought I had nothing to add, but I have to respond to this.
quote:
Seems a little backwards, considering cussing is a made-up distinction between words and violence is an actual action that hurts.

In a work of fiction, none of the violence is actual. It doesn't actually hurt anyone. There is no real blood, no real death, nothing real about it. I can kill off an entire alien race in my fiction and it isn't the same as killing even one person in real life.

But if I use profanity in my writing, that is very nearly the exact same thing as if I were to go up to a person reading my book and actually cuss at them. And if many people read my book, then I am actually using profanity in front of a large audience.

Do we all seriously believe that words, in and of themselves, cannot have an effect on the audience? Then why in the hell are we writers? Do you believe that words like "nigger" and "gook" and "cunt" and "whore" cannot have an effect on the people to whom we apply those words?

Real people, in our real world, actually kill each other over those words. It isn't an imaginary, made up distinction. It is real violence, real bloodshed, real beatings, real cruelty.

I'm not saying these words have no place. But everyone knows what F--- means in print. You gain nothing by spelling it out, except to assure your audience that you intend to offend someone. Just like a group of Aryan Nationalists can bond into a community by freely using the word "niggers'njews".

I'm sure that it says something about writerPTL to the rest of us that he considers anyone that has a problem with cussing in print worse than a mass murderer. What it says may not be true of him, but it does say something.

The words you print say something too.


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Christine
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Wow, the subject changes since I left. We stopped talking about profanity's place in fiction and began seeing rationalizations for using it in real life. I'm sure there's a small connection since we want realistic characters, but let's try to be a little realistic.

No, writerPTL, things have not changed, at least since *I* went to high school 8 years ago. The words might have changed a little bit, but high school kids are almost entirely about trying to figure out who they are and become an independent person, separate from their parents. This usually involves doing rebellious things like cussing for a while, and if that's the worst my kids ever do I'll be grateful.

High school kids are also about impressing their peers. If the peer pressure is high to cuss, it's an easy thing to convince someone to do. After all, it doesn't hurt anyone, and like I said before, of all the things to get into in high school...

That said, I think most of you will grow out of it. Not all. If I recall correctly there were large groups of people who were still cussing in college and there are adults who still use profanity, but most are forced to give it up. The very people who go on to have successful careers run the risk of never getting their career started if they won't clean up their mouths.

As to made up distinctions...I used to use that line myself, I almost laughed when I saw it. *All* words (including definitoins and distinctions between them) are made up. Their purpose is to give us a common way to communicate, that is why we don't randomly go around making up new words. Thus the definitions and the common usages of cuss words are just as valid as any other kind. Whether or not they are useful in fiction aide, I hope we can at least agree that certain words will provoke certain reactions in people, particularly the cuss words.

So cuss away if you'd like, it's not hurting anyone after all, at least no one except yourself because of the judgment you are likely to receive.

**************************************************

Back to the books...

But the question of its role in fiction is not answered by whether or not anyone actually cusses. For one thing, in YA books, which will usually star junior high and high school age kids, you should *never* cuss. This is because in polite society this is unacceptable behavior. I'm not making a value judgment, and kick and scream all you like about it, I'm just telling you what parents want to teach their kids. YA material does not include cussing.

I picked YA because I thought focusing on it might help the discussion. If cussing is required to make believable characters then how is it people believe in Harry Potter? I garuntee you that if someone who killed my parents tried to kill me four times in five years I woul dhave a string of profanity shooting out of my mouth!

[This message has been edited by Christine (edited September 26, 2003).]


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Kolona
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Brilliant, Survivor. I'd say you're a credit to your species but, as you've so often reminded us, I'm not sure what that is.

quote:
Its just how I present the world to myself.
I think it's the other way around. Vulgarity is one way a person presents himself to the world. Granted, that presentation is based on his perceptions of life, but haven't we just been discussing how writers use vulgarity to characterize? More than the meaning of the words, vulgarity says something about the user. It's like the purple-haired teen who says "Don't judge me because of my hair color." He's kidding only himself.

quote:
There are some times you just dont say certain things, but its all just arrangements of sounds and letters.
If the latter part of that sentence is true, then why the first part? How could anyone object, then, when the next wave of rebellers decides there are absolutely no boundaries for potty talk? Will it bother you if they don't mind that baby's first word is f**k?

Writers, even on many of these threads, say they write to make a difference, yet balk when faced with being accountable for what they write. Words have consequences, children's rhymes notwithstanding. Survivor said so -- but, contextually, I think he was paraphrasing the old adage, "The pen is mightier than the sword."

Choose your weapons well.


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writerPTL
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quote:
I'm sure that it says something about writerPTL to the rest of us that he considers anyone that has a problem with cussing in print worse than a mass murderer.

I read my post over and over, and I just don't see where I said this. I never mentioned mass murders or even murders of humans. If you were being sarcastic, fine, but I don't want anyone thinking I meant anything close to what you said.

Now, the rest of what you're saying has merit. It is like running up to someone and cussing in front of them--but my point is this: Cuss words are just words with negative connotations attached to them. What do you think about our society when having a negative word thrown at you is horrid but reading graphic or even non-graphic descriptions of violence, real or imaginary, is nothing? Cussing is just a word that brings up a definition in your mind; the words of violence should bring up an even worse definition, shouldn't they? It's people (or personified fantasy beings, whatever) losing their life, and (if you're not doing some Six Feet Under or zombie or afterlife story thing) they won't ever speak, act, or feel again. Yes, it's just made up people, unrelated to the reader--but the words are too, unless you write a story specifically calling the reader all of those names, which even I agree would be pointless.

I guess that what I'm saying is that, sure, cussing has impact, but I think everyone's over-reaction towards it really reflects our society.

And, Christine, you are right that all distinctions between words are made-up. I should have been clearer. I was trying to reiterate what others said about feces being acceptable while crap is less so, and the s word is less than that. Even though they do provoke different reactions, does that make it any less ridiculous? How can we change what we don't acknowledge? The MPAA lets you kill as many people as you want, but more than the allotted number of s's and f's and it's R? Yes it's gotten off of literature by now but hopefully all the insane distinctions we make for no reason will inspire someone to write a satire or something.


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glogpro
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This business of pretending not to use a word that you are actually using fascinates me. For didactic purposes, let us pretend that the word "junk" is a very bad curse word. Some of the comments on this thread imply that using "j**k" in a written story would be inoffensive, or less offensive, than writing "junk". Why is that? Clearly, both forms communicate the same word. How do they differ?

The only difference I see is this. The writer who actually spells out the word "junk" is flouting the rules of proper written etiquette, and doing it without apology. Like someone who cuts you off in traffic without even a wave of contrition. On the other hand, when you write "j**k", you are communicating not only the word, but your respect for the authority that has decreed such a word to be bad bad bad. You are telling the reader, in effect, "I need to use this word here to report faithfully on what happened, but I realize how offensive people find this word. So I will use this little code to let you know what the word is without actually having to use it."

Interestingly, it is not the word itself which is offensive, but the deliberate lawlessness of the user. Perhaps that is what makes srhowen feel threatened by a group of people openly using profanity. If they seemingly go out of their way to break the rules of polite language, what other rules might they be equally ready to violate?

Reading through this thread, one finds many nuances about the uses of profanity and the feelings each usage arouses. Used in one set of circumstances, profanity communicates a state of extreme emotional excitation; used another way, it can be a deliberate provocation and an implicit threat; it can be a sign of membership in or identification with a particular group; or it can mean absolutely nothing. I think understanding all of this provides a writer with a wonderfully powerful and subtle tool. Look at all that you can convey about a scene or a character or a group of characters by the proper use of profanity. I never really thought about this before. Great thread, Balthasar!


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James Maxey
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I liked Glogpro's breakdown of the ways that cussing is used in literature and life. After giving a lot of thought to the times in my life I've heard and used profanity, I would say that profanity used in anger is a fairly uncommon experience. Most of the time I hear profanity it's in a relaxed, friendly setting. Cussing is more a signal of "it's okay, you're among friends" than a show of hostility. I think that is one reason comics and musicians frequently use cussing in their acts. It immediately bonds them to their target audience, although, of course, it also completely shuts out another audience. But every choice we make in life is going to shut some doors and open others.

I would still love to see an actual statistical study on cussing. The notion that cussing in an attribute of lowbrows and low achievers doesn't match up with the reality I've been exposed to. We know that LBJ and Nixon cussed like sailors in the privacy of the White House. We have it on tape. I would say that among my admittedly skewed life sample, the higher a person's level of education, the more likely they are to cuss. But, that could just be that I have more close friends who are grad students than High School dropouts.

In the end, I think there's a very simple solution to this. If you don't cuss in real life, don't cuss in your writing. If you do cuss in real life, feel free to have your characters cut loose. The world is big enough for both types of writers.

There's a great cartoon in a book called "Self-editing for Fiction Writers." It's a George Booth cartoon, I think. A writer is sitting slumped in his chair, his head propped against his hand, a very glum and sour expression on his face as he stares at his typewriter. In the background, his wife is talking to another woman, saying, "Now that obscenity and explicit sex in novels are out of fashion, George feels that all his years of education are wasted."

--James Maxey


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GZ
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quote:
In the end, I think there's a very simple solution to this. If you don't cuss in real life, don't cuss in your writing. If you do cuss in real life, feel free to have your characters cut loose. The world is big enough for both types of writers.

Write what you know, basically. I would also have to agree with James that in my experience, well-educated, intelligent people cuss just as much as anyone else. Everything in my experience would indicate that intelligent people do just about all the things that any other category of people do, if you take a group cross section.

Yes, a writer does run the risk of alienating an audience with profanity. As was said above at one point, people seem only to complain where there is too much, not where there is too little. But if you take that to a strict No Profanity Policy, I’d also say don’t plan on writing about character’s that can’t be realistically portrayed without profanity. They will just sound false. And that will alienate another segment of your audience.

I think in fiction, a certain amount of profanity has it’s place. It is a tool for developing the characterization of some types of characters. It’s not a tool (or is a tool only through its absence) for every character, or every situation. However profanity is used, the context of the situation and all other information we have about the character are going to affect how it is perceived. Take one of the examples given:

quote:
A woman who says, "I want you to f**k my brains out," is a certain kind of woman. We see her; her words point toward her character, her ethical sense, her upbringing, and even her level of self-esteem.

Depending on the context, that bit of dialog could convey a great many things. What if the woman is sexually reserved but trying to reinterest her husband in their marriage by being what she thinks he wants. Or what she wants, because now she feels repressed, and is trying to break out of her routine. What if she is a top executive issuing a challenge to a male colleague? Or an invitation? The phrase has very different effects, depending on how the character has been developed so far.

I think you do get a bit of room to maneuver regarding where alienation can occur. The "he let out a string of colorful phrases" approach can sufficiently convey the intent and the behavior, without actually "cussing at the reader" effect provided by "’*^$*&# (*&* %$*^(&,’ he said." in a great many situations. But you can’t get the impact, nor the conveyed honesty you need, of say the example about the dead man above saying, "Well, shit." It is a balance to be achieved, just a balance must been achieved every time you pick a descriptive tool over a dialog one.

Several people have brought up that cussing lacks intellect (I tend to think it says nothing either way, and there is a certain wit required for a truly creative and colorful phrase) and is purely emotional, and applied this negatively to human/character behavior. But what exactly is the problem with emotion? People (and therefore characters) do things for purely emotional reasons all the time. Apply pure logic to life always, and you end up with a Vulcan . With fiction, I think it is important that the action be logical as a result of the emotion, but the action itself has no requirement to be logical.


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Narvi
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One more note, I highly discourage the use of "!@#$" type notation. It obnoxiously pushes the narrator into the story. It's a way of saying "he said something, but I'm not going to tell you what." The reader immediately wants to know who you are, and why you're not telling the story straight. If your narrator is well established, do whatever's in character for him, but if he's invisible, keep him that way.

Also, of course, which swear someone chooses can be significant. A serious Christian might invoke body parts frequently but shy away from afterlife-related profanity (or, bizarrely, the other way around). The relative significance of swears can tell us something about a society (especially a polytheistic one, or, even more so, a society of gods).

P.S. Do I remember right that _All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_ has no swearing? My library places it in Young Adult, soo maybe that's why. If I were in WWI, I doubt I'd say anything but profanity, and I imagine the actual soldiers were similar.


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EricJamesStone
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If we grant the premise that certain types of people tend to swear profusely in real life, does that mean it is necessary to have a fictional character of that type swear profusely in order to be "realistic?"

I don't think so. I think just about every writer cleans up the dialogue of his characters except when there is a story reason to not do so, even though it is less "realistic." And I'm not talking about profanity.

Real people's dialogue is filled with "um," "ah," "uh," "er," "y'know," and other speeech mannerisms. Writers will use such things to imply nervousness or something else, or to give a particular character some distinctiveness of speech. But it's not used just to make the dialogue "realistic," because it really wouldn't add anything to the story other than word length (Although, when you're getting paid by the word...)

Similarly, profanity is often merely a speech mannerism, which does not need to be included unless it is significant in some way.


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Kolona
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quote:
Similarly, profanity is often merely a speech mannerism, which does not need to be included unless it is significant in some way.

If only television and movies thought that way. <disgruntled sigh>

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writerPTL
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Well, age is just a number, hair is just dead skin cells or whatever it is, eye color is pigment, race is too, how someone walks is just a movement, oh why even record what they say at all, why not just write that the character is existing and let the reader make up his own, unoffensive story?
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Kolona
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quote:
why not just write that the character is existing and let the reader make up his own, unoffensive story?

Well, let's see. Profanity, age, hair, eye color, race, walk...only profanity is a true choice here. Sure, there are dyes and colored contacts, and a gal can exaggerate the wiggle of her hips, but it's probably safe to say those things aren't patently offensive. The thing is, believe it or not, there is life without profanity. (Although if things continue to snowball as they are, that may not be true too much longer as we won't be able to escape the four-lettered scourge.)

Would the movie, Gone With the Wind, for instance, have been a tale of mere Southern existence if Rhett hadn't uttered that floodgate-breaking swear word at the very end? But we've gone from Rhett to On Golden Pond to swearing child stars. Real progress, that.

I remember being disappointed in Henry Fonda when I saw On Golden Pond. In fact, a woman and her teenage son sat behind my husband and me in the movie and she laughed loudly each time the teen in the movie swore. (I didn't hear her son laughing, though.) But I remember whispering to my husband that if her son swore like that when they got home, she wouldn't find it so funny.

Just today, Mitch Album (spelling?), whom I don't generally listen to on the radio, had a segment on the proliferation of swearing on television. Profanity is a problem for those who want to avoid it. Why anyone would find that offensive is beyond me.


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Christine
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I agrew tih Eric, but I think his point is being missed. The main argument for using profanity in dialogue is that we are trying to have realistic stories including real characters, believable situations, and realistic speech.

"Do you want some acon and beggs?"

I made this blooper just thie morning. My fiance and I laughed and we went on with our morning. Unless it was significant to a story, however, I would not put it in a work of fiction.

In fact, dialogue in a novel is not supposed to be entirely real. It is supposed to lend itself to the telling of the story. It should not seem fake, but it should definitely not try to imitate real life. Rather, it should try to inspire the reader to believe in it. Sometimes profanity is required to inspire the reader to believe in dialogue. Sometimes.


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Narvi
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Any aspect of a scene or character should be included or omitted based on its relevance to what the author cares about. I think we can all agree on this. Needless to say, this includes profanity.

I can think of stories in which age, hair type, eye color, race, walk, and use of profanity were significant and therefore included. I can also think of many more in which these attributes were irrelevant and omitted.

Using profanity may have an extra cost. There are some readers (very few, I suspect) who so greatly dislike swearing that it will jolt them out of a story or even make them put down the book. Unless you are specifically trying to reach these readers, they're probably few enough to safely ignore. It may also cause 'respectable institutions' such as schools and libraries to not recomend your books to children.

As to excessive profanity becoming grating, this is true of *any* descriptive technique. Inserting realistic "um"s into everyone's speech is annoying. Carefully describing everyone's clothing is annoying. If you have a character who swears incessantly and obnoxiously, you can filter it like a foreign language. To do this, *someone* has to do the filtering. See Gollum's account of what happened after he lost the ring in _FotR_ for a good example. There Gandalf does it. If you don't want someone to be telling the story, you can use your perspective character, just let the reader know what you're doing.


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srhowen
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I think we can all agree that it has a place in character speech.

But--does it have a place in the author's words?

"F***," John blurted when he smashed his hand with the hammer.

Ok, yeah John might say that. But the second part of the sentence is the author's choice of words. Even if we are in John's POV, the non-dialog is the author's.

"F***," John blurted when he hit his f'n hand with the f'n hammer.

Think of that written out without the *** and left out letters.

Would I read a whole book like that? Most likely not. And no matter how many people try to say, oh yeah I would. I doubt that as well.

Honestly, most of us, the majority would find it offensive. It is jolting. It does jerk you out of the reading each time you see those words.

Do I want to sound like my eldest son who must use the VBFW before every noun? Funny, even he noticed when my youngest son (16) used the poop word. "hey, who taught you to say that kinda poop?" He says it so much himself he didn't even notice it in his speech. (he's 25 and can't hold a job. It's always someone else's f'n fault)(hmmm?)

But when we read the words--even if we ourselves say them, we SEE them, we are forced to pay attention to them.

So, a character may swear, but when the author does in their part of the narrative--wham! The reader gets their face rubbed in it.

We may have a character using that VBLW (very bad like word) "Like I went to the mall, and like John was there and he was like ---" UGH BUT--that is the character. What if the author wrote that way?

Like leaves were like falling and like the sky was like blue and the ground was like green--

Also think about the crits you have done? I've been in a lot of groups, not just here, 3 here or is it 4? Del-Rey, Critters, and a couple of collage ones. I can think of only a handful of times when someone used swearing in their author's "voice." (don't jump all over that--you now what I mean the author's chosen words)(the ones the reader knows are the author) When they did everyone in the class jumped on them. Everyone in the group did. I was asked to leave a group here by the other members when I wrote a story that was too dark—it didn’t even have any profanity.

As in the overuse of the word like, profanity doesn't have a place in the author's words.

The character's words, yes--in moderation, or it becomes like the very annoying use of like.

But should the author swear in their words? Not if you want to be published and read by the widest audience. I believe someone said it--I can't think of anyone who would put a book down for lack of swearing. But there are those who will put it down for too much or even a little profanity esp. on the part of the author's chosen words.

It's hard enough to get a book published--why make it harder?

Shawn

[This message has been edited by srhowen (edited September 30, 2003).]


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srhowen
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Postscript--I know you want reality. But most of your readers read to escape reality.

Shawn


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Hildy9595
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I couldn't agree more with Shawn...the author's voice shouldn't include profanity. It simply doesn't have a place in the expository portions (i.e., He hit his f'ing hand with the f'ing hammer). In fact, it makes the writing ridiculous.

Someone up-thread said something very wise (I paraphrase): No one was ever criticized for using too FEW curse words.

I think that's the key. Include what you need in dialogue to make the characters realistic. And yes, I believe you must include profanity in certain cases...write a character living on the streets of NYC and have them say, "Gosh darnit!" when they get hit by a bike messenger, and I'm putting that story down. Why? Because the writer is clearly out of touch with the situation and character about which they are writing.
However, same character does not need to spew a steady stream of foul language to make me buy into their reality...just a peppering will do.


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Kolona
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quote:
you must include profanity in certain cases

Why not change "must" to "can"? As Shawn so wisely put it, a lot of readers read to escape reality. While a reader might enjoy a novel about a hard-riding biker who finds redemption, s/he might not want to wade through the stark reality of the before picture. A true wordsmith should be able to convey the situation without resorting to profanity and its attendant ills.

Adult themes are one thing, but often "adult" simply means profanity, graphic sex and/or graphic violence. Why must a story without those automatically be labeled "young adult", as if it's a given that anything less is juvenile? (Although it does sort of bring out the Peter Pan in some of us -- the yearning for adventure in the safety of NeverNeverLand. )

Now that New York character who gets hit by a bike may not say "Gosh darnit!" -- even young adults wouldn't buy that -- and you could pepper the scene with a few choice words, but you could also legitimately write the scene without those words. Contrary to seemingly popular opinion, profanity is not de rigueur.


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EricJamesStone
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quote:
And yes, I believe you must include profanity in certain cases...write a character living on the streets of NYC and have them say, "Gosh darnit!" when they get hit by a bike messenger, and I'm putting that story down. Why? Because the writer is clearly out of touch with the situation and character about which they are writing.

You are correct that the use of those euphemisms would be unrealistic. But is profanity the only possible response to that situation?

"Hey! Watch where you're going!"

"Ow! That hurt!"

"Yo! I'm walkin' here!"

"You bikers don't own the road, you know!"

"You son of a motherless goat!"

OK, so maybe my NYC slang isn't completely authentic.

But somehow, TV shows like Law & Order successfully manage to portray New York cops, homeless people, drug dealers, gang members, and teenagers, none of whom use anything worse than "PG" language.


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Hildy9595
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Agreed, there are other ways to phrase the same interaction without using "the naughty bits." My point was that if you putting actual words in a character's mouth, they'd best be believable. You can absolutely write around it by using descriptions of the action, instead of dialogue.
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loggrad98
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Darn.

That's all I have to say about that (or this thread).

Facetiousnessosity or something like that aside, I must say thanks to Kolona for using myriad properly (my personal pet peeve).

Also, I write for one reason...for ME. I am in it to entertain myself, see what I can accomplish (i.e. finish a story, make myself smile, surprise myself, etc.) and in doing so, if it takes a few cuss words to help me understand a character or situation or even an omniscient narrator, then so be it. Swearing is what it is and I think it has been said before, but buy and read what you like, and everyone should write what they want, and somewhere in the middle some of the first group will hook up with some of the second and there will be some entertained people beyond the people like me who make up stories to make myself smile and escape reality for a while.

Whew. That is the longest rant I have ever typed with no punctuation <<bows>>.


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srhowen
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As an editor, I can only say that gratuitous anything in a story makes me boomerang it.

And swearing by the author is considered gratuitous by every editor I know. Character speech aside.

So if you write only to amuse yourself--shrug. But if you write to get published--shrug as well. (there are a lot of writers out there who write well and follow the standards) You can't tell people what will work. I think we all have to find out that for ourselves. Use wrong formatting enough times and you will learn to be more careful. The same with anything else that goes against the best odds for acceptance.

It's like so much else--the odds are the lottery. Why stack the odds against you.

Shawn


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