Do your characters need to be somewhat profane and vulgar to be more realistic? I've had this subject rolling around in my head (there isn't much else up there) for the past couple of days. Partly because I am working on a piece that involves a character which is mildly profane and partly because I got thinking about the Star Trek movies (except the most recent one) and noticed the lack of emotional response (swearing) to different stressful situations. I don't know about anyone else, but when something stresses me out or I stub my toe on my daughter's Barbie castle at 3 in the morning when I'm half asleep and have to find the bathroom I'm not thinking 'oh gee whiz and lollipops that hurt'. I'm more than likely thinking (and / or yelling) some other colorful words that I won't type here. I regret it in the morning (particularly when my wife wakes up), but it is an emotional response and a valid one, I believe. IMO, I need my characters to have a bit of a potty mouth to give them more of a three-dimensional feel. So what do you think, do you Swear By Your Characters?
[This message has been edited by Denem (edited August 29, 2009).]
I'm a little inclined to base the speech of my characters on my own speech, and I don't generally swear except under my breath in things like the abovementioned "stubbed toe" category, which does happen a fair amount. (Though the other day I told someone at work to---well, never mind what I told him, but he deserved it.) Usually it doesn't work much into the stories.
I do have other examples to work from---for instance, I know several guys, of whom every other word in their speech is the "F" word. I do think the words lose all their force if repeated too often...
I've wondered about emotional response to events...I was going through some 9 / 11 news coverage (mostly MSNBC, of which I have on hand about three hours from the beginning) the other day, and thought the anchors were extraordinarily calm, given the nature of the events---I recall the Kennedy assassination coverage (of which I also have some on hand), where the anchors seemed on the ragged edge of completely freaking out. (One exception: an NBC reporter from the Pentagon, who spoke calmly at first, then a few minutes later (after the plane hit, but before that was known for sure) came on and the tension in his voice had ratcheted up several notches.)
I have my characters swear, but only a little bit. The occasional, 'crap', 'sh**', 'd***', for things like stubbed toes and unexpected, unpleasant surprises. My biggest problem is coming up with alternate words that don't sound goofy when I'm dealing with a non-earth or non-human society.
Ultimately I think it depends on the character. If the character is a professional and handling the situation in a professional manner than I would expect less cursing. If the character is more street than I would expect more. And then there are all of the shades in between. I wouldn't overuse it though.
My recommendation would be to know your characters well enough to know whether they would swear in a given situation or not. Listen to their voices and make sure the words are right for them.
I agree that swearing makes a character more believable. That said, your character doesn't have to use an actual English swear word to get the point across. Like "frack" in BSG or "By Thor's hammer" in Anchorman (but less silly). Sorry I can't think of any good literary examples right now, but I know they're out there.
Also, slightly on topic, swearing is different in different cultures. Most French swears are regligous words, like mother of god or chalice. Most English swears are biologically-based. If you had a society of robots "obsolete" could be a swear.
Swearing just for the sake of swearing can pull the reader out of a story. I think every word needs to be there to propel the action( i.e. the story forward) Some of these examples add to the truth of a character, or add humor. Arriki yours was my favorite.
However, I have read many a short story, or novel here at hatrack where characters swore and the swearing was completely out of place. Nothing jags me out of a prose like an unneeded F bomb.
Swearing can add flavor to the character, but you need to watch to make sure the flavor isn't too strong, or that it isn't a bit too sour.
It can make a character grittier, but also by association it makes the story grittier, and grittier does not mean better.
I have a potty mouth so I don't have a problem with swearing by others, or, per this thread, in the story. Having said that, as others have noted, the swearing does need to be true to the character AND story.
I wrote a story about a bail bondsman and a hooker that had a LOT of swearing. I also wrote a story that'll be published in October that has nary a swear word in it--a couple of h-e-double hockey sticks, and a poo-poo. I think that's about it. (While editing that story, one of my characters utters an R-rated word, and it took me out of the story. It was inappropriate given the story, and out it went.)
I swear profusely and casually in private, so in stories with a contemporary setting the characters are pretty free with it as well. It's done more for verisimilitude than edge, though.
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My characters tend to swear but only in high-stress situations. And I can't stop them. I figure if they're that determined - and they come up with nifty world-appropriate curses - then it's what they need to do.
(Okay, yeah, it's probably just my subconscious, but when said subconscious speaks to me through one of my characters it's almost always right.)
Dumb question somewhat along the same lines as this thread: What about using swear words in a WOTF submission? I had one of my characters saying, "D**n, Wyatt, I'm surprised he's still on his feet after a work like that." Then I thought better of it and replaced "D**n" with "Jeez". It doesn't come across as strong but still gets the point across... or should I have stuck with the stronger "D**n"?
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There was another thread recently about writing sex scenes, in which it was suggested that you should not write what doesn't come naturally to you. I think the same applies to swearing. If you are not comfortable with it, it will probably not come across well on the page. And how are you going to feel about it when they start asking questions on your book tour?
After you get past whether you as a writer are comfortable with it, you should consider whether it is right for the character, the genre, and the audience. If it's wrong in any one of those, you should skip it.
Crystal - I did a submission to WotF with the f-bomb in it because I couldn't figure out a way to rewrite the scene without it. Got HM so wasn't disqualified for profanity. And I'm pretty sure the story didn't deserve to go any further than that, so I don't think it hurt me any.
If you really like the way the line reads, I'd go ahead and put it in. Worse that happens is you win and they ask you to change it for anthology, right? :-) ;-)
Thanks for the feedback, Kitti. I don't mind using what I call "light" profanity such as D, Sh, H, etc., but I draw the line at F. But that's just me . I had heard that the WOTF Anthologies were used in schools, which is why they frown on heavy profanity.
I used to swear a lot more than I do now, though it wouldn't take much to slip back into practice. LOL I weaned myself from it because of giving youngsters riding lessons. I didn't think the parents would appreciate it. I don't give lessons anymore, and I do have an occasional slip, but it's rare. But there are times when a D or a Sh seems appropriate for one of my characters when something takes them by surprise.
I think about this some myself. I only use profanity in the most extreme of emotional duress...my mother was cursed at my her mother from infancy, so profanity was not allowed or used in our household growing up and it never really became part of my personal expression.
I also tend to have many of my characters talk (and I also tend to narrate) in a manner relatively similar to my speech and that of those around me, so my characters rarely curse.
I don't feel its necessarily needed though. It depends on the characterization really. As I said my entire family even most of my extended family use what you might call "strong euphemisms" (crap, crud, darn etc) in toe-stubbing type situations. On the other hand, my "in laws" all use pretty much all standard profanity (d, sh, f etc etc) very frequently and casually, so I think it really just depends.
A point often made about characterization is that characters need to be differentiated from one another and given different voices for their dialog. One character, even in a professional environment and a non-stressful setting, can be given a potty mouth. The way that character uses profanity can be accepted or not by the other characters and thereby show the relationships among them. Profanity is then one of the tools the author can use to show a character's background and interactions.
Street characters may all use a high level of profanity--f-bombs every other word--as normal speech, which reduces the strength of the swearing to an annoyance, at most. It would still be expected of the great majority of characters in that environment.
In an environment of professional employment--a business office or research lab--one or two characters throwing out a few biological expletives would distinguish those characters and may even be the basis for establishing animosity among them. Pervasive profanity used by everyone would be unrealistic, so an unusual expletive works much better to indicate a high stress level in a character's reaction when the experiment goes awry.
In an academic environment, the level of profanity can show the personality differences a character may have in different settings. In the dorm among peers, the character may use a high proportion of f-bombs in dialog. In the classroom, conferences with faculty, working as a research assistant or other interactions with those who would judge or supervise, the student character would act as one does in a professional setting--only the rare potty mouth would continue a high level of profanity.
Last couple of posts remind me of an executive at a big corporation where I used to work. He thought nothing of dropping f-bombs, cursing at people on conference calls--it was a form of chest-beating for him. Completely unprofessional, and no one said anything to him because of his position in the company. The thing is, though, that no one took him all that seriously, either. There does come a point in time where the words cease to shock, and just become annoying and tiresome.
With regards to whether or not it is needed for believability, I think that depends entirely on the character. If you have a bunch of sailors who don't swear... like sailors... well, they better be part of a church rowing team. If you have a "outcast" type teenager in a modern world setting, I have a hard time believing they don't swear even when not necessary.
I have some characters who never utter four letter words, and others who use them like punctuation. It depends on who is doing the speaking, at least to me.
quote:Then I thought better of it and replaced "D**n" with "Jeez".
WOTF doen't care about "damns," "hells," or many other explitives. This switch probably won't affect your readers either because the two words are very close in explitive power, i.e. the evoke the same type. However, if you have the type of character who uses "f***" and you use "darn it!" that switch will evoke the wrong type for the character in the reader's mind. It will feel wrong, goofy, unbelievable. But you don't have to use profanity to evoke types. It's only one tool to do so.
I'm not sure that "jeeze" is close enough in meaning to "damn" to replace it.
If I hear something annoying, but not necessarily unexpected, I'll say "jeeze." Think of it as What Frasier's dad would say when he hears him complaining about the chair for the millionth time. Damn just wouldn't fit.
I like to think of damn as a stronger, somewhat more upset word. Not super upset like F*** but more upset than "jeeze". Like if the bad turn of events was unexpected. Your groceries tore through the bag and hit the ground. Or someone won't let you merge into the lane and you miss your exit.
Then of course F*** that's more of a you spilled coffee on your expensive laptop and the warranty expired yesterday.
What I think makes non-swearing stories work as well as they do is that in really, really bad situations, ie a psychopath comes into your place of employment and starts busting caps at everybody, you might be too stunned to start cursing. Or do much of anything. Except duck and cover, fight back, or run like the friggin dickens.
[This message has been edited by Zero (edited September 01, 2009).]
My apologies. However, oddly enough, I do not find that word nearly as offensive as its present tense or noun counterpart. I do believe I've even encountered that word in some Victorian literature.
Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008
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Sorry to hijack this back to the original question.
No you do not need to have a character swear to make him/her more believable (in general). Not all people do. Depends on the character. A grizzled longshoreman in Chicago probably won't bark his shin on a stack of pallettes in the middle of a bad day and say, "Oh fiddlesticks, that hurt!" A saintly nun probably won't say, "What the f---?!" when she can't find the rosary she just had in her hand a second ago.
But, you could have a miss manners longshoreman or a salty-tongued nun. Either could lend some color to the cast.
Interesting take on things, dee-boncci. I like it. Sometimes going against the grain of what you expect a character will do will make it more interesting. As long as it doesn't jar the reader out of the story.
I, however, have to agree with most of the post. Swearing can work in writing as long as it's not overused and used in the right context. Two of my favorites, Stephen King and Tom Clancy do this extremely well. I can't remember too many times when I have been jarred out of one of their stories because of profanity. Of course, we're talking about two of the most prominant writers in the world (IMO).
My sense of it Denem is that the nature of the character is the context. Of course whether you "dramatize" the swearing, or just allude to it, is also a matter of another context (audience and genre). The exception would be children's books where you would totally pretend swearing doesn't exist, or at least I would.
Interesting you mention King. My view on the subject derives from what he says about it in "On Writing". To grossly paraphrase he say's it's a matter of writing with honesty. If the character you envision is going to use profanity sometimes, then don't mealy-mouth around it in the story.
I've never been jolted from a story by a little cursing. As a matter of fact, Brown and King in their book on self-editing ("Self Editing for Fiction Writers", I think)suggest trying to use it sparingly so that when it does appear, it has the "shocking" effect for which people often employ it in their speech. Their example of it is pretty good as well.
It's funny, King gets mentioned a lot in conversations like these. I think there were a lot of writers who employed swearing in their work, but it was King's success that enabled it to become "mainstream".
I've got a book of essays critiquing King's work that was done in the early '80s. Well, not really critiquing, more like gushing like schoolgirls...but there was one that was very unkind to King. I can't remember who it was by as I don't have the book handy, but King himself was a little miffed at what was perceived to be an attack.
Anyway, my point being that this guy took exception to King's "honesty", felt that the vulgarity was a lack of skill in writing. One particular point was made regarding one of the minor characters in Salem's Lot: He defecated in his pants. Only 'defecate' wasn't used.
In King's opinion, this minor character wouldn't know defecate from fornicate so the blue-collar, Joe six-pack term was used. The essayist, on the other hand, felt that it was distracting, especially from a minor character, kind of author intrusion, and felt it wasn't needed; that it was a detriment to the story.
Again, I'm in the camp of using whatever would benefit the character, but there is the other opinion that King's success enabled lesser writers to start using hammers to write with instead of scalpels.
In my Void City series, Eric has a definite potty mouth, but Talbot, Greta, and Magbidion tend not to curse at all. As long as the language isn't there just to be foul and it sounds true to the characters, then I allow it. On the other hand, audience has to come into it a little too. I've written characters who curse non-descriptively (ie. Haley swore. Jason cursed under his breath. That sort of thing.) if my target audience was more "all ages" than my novels.
Whichever rout you take, just remember that there *can* be consequences to your fiction (ie. personal attacks, etc.) and make certain you're comfortable with the - for lack of a better word - exposure that the saltier language, situations, etc can bring.