This is topic Vulgarity in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Rhaythe (Member # 7857) on :
Quick question - how vulgar do you allow your characters to be when they speak? I have one character that's extremely racist to my protagonist (Native American), and it made one of my beta readers uncomfortable. But I felt it established her character to have her spouting profane racial terms, so I left it in the book.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
I presented a paper to a writing conference titled "Writing the Other: Identity Apporpriation and Malappropriation." One of the subjects discussed was dehumanizing identity group individuals for purposes of creating antagonism, an essential feature in creative writing for the sake of passionate personality clashes.

An explication concluded that any identity group individual is an appropriate subject for dehumanization so long as the individual's social improprieties are portrayed as specific to the individual and don't indict an entire identity group. Specificity is paramount so that other members of the identity group aren't offended by blanket stereotyping.

Balancing noble character traits with human frailties is one method for avoiding accusations of identity malappropriation. Another is a poetic justice outcome for selfish behaviors, like racism. Good is rewarded; wrongdoing punished for poetic justice. In other words, the racist character would suffer consequences for her racism. That way, though readers may feel a degree of discomfort at times, there is a satisfying outcome to smooth over ruffled feathers.

A method for writing a specific individual identity is to artfully portray a character's unique idiosyncracies and idioms, status markers like name brand apparel and product consumption, and specific physicality, behavior, and personality traits. In other words, characterization developed as fully as the protagonist's equally noble and frail personality.

One feature is essential for all central characters regardless: transformation of external and internal circumstances. One character transformation genre common among story-type genres is bildungsroman, where a character experiences a personal moral or psychological growth. Maturation, for example.

The paper was well-received.

[ May 11, 2012, 03:22 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by babooher (Member # 8617) on :
"(W)e have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us..." Joseph Campbell

I just think of the classics and let them guide me. What would Twain do? Shakespeare?

Write honestly and let the world be damned.

[ May 11, 2012, 02:00 PM: Message edited by: babooher ]
Posted by MAP (Member # 8631) on :
I think it needs to be clear that the character's actions do not reflect the author's views. The only time I feel uncomfortable is when I feel like the author doesn't realize how horrible the character is being. I don't think you have to do much. It is as simple as not rewarding the character's behavior. Let them suffer the natural consequences of being a racist or show some character growth. But I don't think you should censor the character.

Look at the movie Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. That was a pretty awesome movie, but the main character said such horribly racist things.
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
I think MAP hit this nail right on the head. An author should never be vulgar, but that's not the same as saying his *characters* are never vulgar, and that's not the same as saying that non-vulgar characters never use vulgarity.

Every language has "vulgar" words, except possibly Hebrew, and that's because it was a dead language. The people who revived it in the 19th C had access to Yiddish, possibly humanity's richest storehouse of colorful vulgarisms. The universality of "vulgar words" suggests to me they perform a linguistic function, like verb moods which express speaker's attitude towards the word he is saying (e.g. subjunctive). The words we label as "vulgar" are used to indicate disparagement or negative attitudes toward something. The reason it's considered impolite is that it's impolite to burden someone else with your negative attitudes.

Try this experiment. Get together with some friends and swear freely, but don't use real vulgarisms; use made up ones like "flubbitting" or "smuddy". What you'll quickly find out is that it's not the words that offend, it's the attitude and the atmosphere it creates.

What makes vulgar people unpleasant is that their speech is full of negative attitude and devoid of useful thought. More educated people can express those attitudes without using special words, but it's more work. Even so, people who are not vulgar use vulgar language quite frequently, depending on context (e.g. military, some work environments).

Vulgarity is a bit like sex. We can take it for granted that just about every fictional world has plenty of sex, the question is if and how sex should be depicted in a story. The same goes for vulgarity. The thoughtful depiction of vulgarisms by an author is not vulgar; nor is the thoughtful depiction of sex. It is the crude and lazy treatment of these things that is vulgar.

But for that matter the crude and lazy depiction of *anything* is vulgar (e.g. religion) if it is calculated to elicit a cheap reaction.
Posted by Rhaythe (Member # 7857) on :
Good thoughts all around. Special points to extrinsic for that post.

I think it needs to be clear that the character's actions do not reflect the author's views.
And I like to think that's the case. At least, I certainly tried to make it the case.

In the end, the character gets her face chewed off by a newfie, so justice is served.
Posted by ForlornShadow (Member # 9758) on :
Stay true to the character. If the character's attitude and behavior has them use vulgar words then that's the character. Don't censor the character. Just make sure that because of the vulgarity the character needs to have some consequences. Hope that helps
Posted by LDWriter2 (Member # 9148) on :
This has probably been answered by the time I got here but Stephen King believes the character should speak the way the character speaks. If he is a rough outlaw or stevedore he is bound to use vulgarity.

Sometimes a character's language can make people uncomfortable, I have found that to be true as I read some books but unless the book is for way young children the character should speak the way they would in real life.

I have found that hard to do at times in my writing but sugar coating language won't attract readers.
Posted by enigmaticuser (Member # 9398) on :
MattLeo, that was such an awesome essay, I'll be parsing out bits for tweets all week.
Posted by babooher (Member # 8617) on :
This is a repost of something I posted in a different thread.

"Curse words just add to the word count and not the overall effect. They are throw-away words in real life, so using them in dialogue is just a waste. The reader won't notice unless you use some other lame interjection.

I'm a teacher. I hear everything under the sun as I walk the halls. For a student to cuss means nothing. They do it in place of other interjections like "uh". Now, if I dropped an F-bomb,which I haven't, you can believe jaws would drop. Because of my judicious use of the words, the words have more power for me.

As writers we must empower our words, not waste them. Make sure each word counts and if you truly need to curse, the mature reader won't give a damn."
Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
Curse words just add to the word count and not the overall effect. They are throw-away words in real life, so using them in dialogue is just a waste. The reader won't notice unless you use some other lame interjection.
Not necessarily. Fictional dialog is much simpler than real world dialog, because it only works on three levels:

  1. What the speaker wants the other participants to think he's up to.
  2. What the speaker believes he is up to.
  3. What the speaker is revealing about himself without being aware of it.

It is on this third level that vulgarity often functions most effectively in fictional dialog.

Let's imagine a private conversation between two adult professionals (A and B) who belong to the same ethnic or religious group and grew up in the same urban neighborhood. In that conversation A & B good-naturedly refer to each other by a vulgarity (X) that is a pejorative for their group. Unknown to them their conversation is overheard by a third colleague (C) who is not part of the group. Hearing that vulgarity used as a term of endearment, C later publicly addresses A as an "X", then is shocked when everyone takes offense.

Would you say that the use of the vulgarity X is pointless?

As a satirist, I find myself putting vulgarities in the mouths of characters precisely because vulgarity has no *intentional* semantic content. It is pure characterization. For example in one of my WIPs, "Baudwynn and the Rising Star", the protagonist graduates last in his class at the Sorcerer's College. Having few career prospects, he plies the trade of itinerant rural exorcist. In the opening scene he banishes a particularly nasty demon for a farmer's wife, then is enraged when she pays him with the carcass of an old hen that hasn't even been gutted or plucked:

“Sc--w this!” Baudwynn spat. He reattached the chicken's head and raised it from the dead. “Here's your f-bomb chicken back. Better not kill it again.”

“What am I s'posed to do with it?” Goodie Clover demanded.

“Feed it and water it and let it live in your f-bomb house!”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because it's an f-bomb demonic undead f-bomb chicken!” Baudwynn lied.

Is this scene funny without the vulgarities? Probably not. I'm fairly confident that it's more funny with them in. It shows how Baudwynn, despite being quite magically talented, fails to project the professional image of decorum and subtle menace a wizard is supposed to cultivate. Goodie Clover, a shrewd judge of character, doesn't hesitate to cheat him. And despite obviously losing his temper, it doesn't even occur to the good-natured Baudwynn to use his magic to harm the old woman.
Posted by rcmann (Member # 9757) on :
If you never offend anybody, what's the point? Even Peanuts, and the Wizard of ID have offended people. You can't possibly write anything worth reading without finding someone to get offended over it. Some people just spend their lives looking for something to get offended about.

If your character is a plantation overseer in the antebellum south, and one of the field hands openly defies him, do you think his reaction is going to be polite restraint? What about a marine drill sergeant dealing with a truly dumbass recruit? Or an eighteenth century sailor waiting his turn at buggering the cabin boy?

If you are writing fiction for children of course, you have to censor yourself. It is a capital crime to write the unshielded truth and put it in a children's book. But if it is for adults to read, then I say write the story the way the story wants to be told.
Posted by Rhaythe (Member # 7857) on :
I like rcmann's enthusiasm!
Posted by MartinV (Member # 5512) on :
Good one, rcmann, particularly this:
Or an eighteenth century sailor waiting his turn at buggering the cabin boy?
[Big Grin]
I'm afraid a vast number of adults are still as vulnerable as children or possibly more vulnerable. How else can you explain a person's inability to calmly hear a curse word? When children hear a curse word, they usually laugh. It's the grownups who are offended because they taught themselves they should be.

My latest story called for a curse word a few times so I wrote them down. Then, to avoid persecution at the hands of the soft-spoken, I translated them into French. Which reminds me: is 'merde' a curse word or not?
Posted by EVOC (Member # 9381) on :
Cursing is part of real characters. Cursing is not vulgar either. For example, a bomb blows up just out of range of a soldier... he'd likely yell (insert swear here). Could you get away without writing it? Probably. But I feel if it fits the character it adds realism to the characters. No one speaks perfectly all the time.

However when it comes to cursing, or even vulgar characters. There is such thing as too much.

To get back to Rhaythe's original issue. Perhaps the point of your character is to make a reader uncomfortable. But it is a balancing act. Too much and they will put the book down. If YOU feel like it might be too much (based on your opinion and the collected opinions of trial readers) then you might tone it back some. Perhaps you can make your point without having have it around all the time.

Don't eliminate it, it sounds like it is probably an important character trait to the story. You can always rework so it is not as "in your face". But again, only do that because you think it needs it. One uncomfortable reader may not warrant a change, but ten uncomfortable readers may at least warrant a second look.
Posted by C@R3Y (Member # 9669) on :
If the person reading you work doesn't like it, obviously it's not for them. Write for yourself, of course, but also write for those that appreciate your work--not for those that don't. [Smile]

If you character is mean, so bit it. Vulgar, so be it. Profane, go for it. The world is filled with cruel and unjust people, and you can't sensor that out, now can you?

Never lie to make people happy when it comes to writing. It goes back on the saying, It's better to have the terrible truth than a beautiful lie. I can't remember the exact words, but you get it.
Posted by C@R3Y (Member # 9669) on :
Oh, and I also like what RcMann is saying =] It's a great way to put it.
Posted by babooher (Member # 8617) on :
Please understand, I am not suggesting that I don't curse (I promise I do and for the stupidest of reasons). I also don't want people thinking I judge those that curse. I recently posted a video of Kevin Smith that is rife with curse words and I enjoyed and do enjoy his work.

But I still think relying on curse words tends to be lazy. In too many cases, it need not be there. Just as writers need to know how to create dialogue that sounds real but doesn't contain the multitude of stutterings and dropped words normal conversation has, a writer should remember that most curse words fall into wasted words.

I can't see how MattLeo's work is made funnier by adding in expletives. Doing so only makes it vulgar, and by vulgar I mean the original definition: common or ordinary.

As for those sailors and people who hit their thumb instead of the nail, I still say curse words are rarely warranted. There is nothing wrong with "Jack Pegleg let loose a gale of curses that even his fellow pirates blanched at." To insist on writing each one in is akin to writing every "uh" and "um" someone says.

To steal a phrase from my father, every little boy knows how to curse, but men know when to.
Posted by rcmann (Member # 9757) on :
Granted a lot of people in real life use curses to fill in the gaps for words they don't have. Or just as a substitute for an inarticulate scream. But sometimes curses are a straightforward expression of rage, when you want to get your message across in no uncertain terms.

I read a story once where a prisoner looks his captor in the eyes and tells him, "Your parents were brothers." I call that cursing, although some people might not. I also call it elegantly lethal. [Smile]

Doesn't it also depend on the reader's culture? Like, is 'bastard' still a curse word? The literal definition is almost meaningless in modern America. But it is still used as an insult, even when one or both of the people talking were born out of wedlock. Is it considered vulgar?

What about son of a bitch? Or the acronym, SOB? Does it matter if one considers the term to bitch to mean literally a female dog? It is worse or less insulting when one assumes that a bitch is a euphemism for a woman of either loose morals or foul temper, or maybe both? Some cultures would take being called a son of a dog worse than others I think. And what about when one woman calls another woman a son of a bitch? I have heard it done, especially between drunks. Does that still count as vulgar? Or does it cross the line into slapstick?

And of course, there is the ever popular curse that implies one has engaged in coitus with one's maternal ancestor. (See, I can be tactful when I want to). I have often heard women use that one against other women, and men use it against women, as well as both genders use it against men.

This of course brings in the question of slander defense. Is it vulgar, or even an insult, if one is able to offer evidence that the behavior in question has in fact occurred? For example, if a character in a story calls a werewolf a son of a bitch, does it count as a curse?

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