Monday, January 12, 2009

To swear or not to swear…

...that is today’s question. Or rather, should your characters? Before you answer, consider a few things.
First, does profanity add anything to the story? More pointedly, if your character didn’t drop the F bomb or similar expletives, at least once in awhile, would it detract from his/her true voice? Ginny Wiehardt cautions in Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue not to overuse slang or profanity (see #8). I tend to differ (though not always) about profanity. I agree that sometimes a character can be just as menacing or evil without it. On the other hand, it certainly can convey an important aspect of the character’s nature. For instance: if expletives fall from his/her tongue at every juncture, wouldn’t that imply s/he grew up in an environment where such language was commonplace? Alternately, if s/he avoids profanity, wouldn’t it imply a higher social standing, and if s/he were the villain in the piece, an ultimate fall from grace?
The second consideration should be your target audience. YA fiction has come a long way since my days as a young adult, and apparently some profanity is allowed, if deemed important. Helium has nine posts for your perusal. Obviously, many more despicable character traits could shock a YA reader worse than profanity, though I’m of the mind that the use of “colorful language” should be justifiable.
As so wisely stated by WiseGeek, language is a tool with which people express feelings. As a writer, you must judge whether profanity is the best tool to convey your character’s emotions.
Writing and reading it are two separate things. Sometimes reading it can feel like a smack. If it’s your intention to smack your readers’ psyches, then it’s probably a useful tool. Or if your intention is to convey a realistic situation in which two characters let their emotions carry them away in the heat of the moment, it’s also a useful tool. Recently, while editing Going with Gravity (to be released sometime this year from The Wild Rose Press), I smacked my own psyche when I read what I’d written: my H/H both dropped the F-bomb. I paused to consider whether I should replace it, or take it out entirely. One of the instances was a kind of play on words, the other was during an argument. I left them in. To me, real people are flawed, and I like them that way. Perfect is boring. But that’s for another post.
Despite my decision, I still am on the fence about the issue. As someone once pointed out, the Artist-formerly-known-as-Prince never used one word of profanity in his songs, yet some are downright dirty (case in point: Little Red Corvette is NOT about a car).
What do you think? Is it better to be clever and write around profanity? Have your characters only curse in a foreign language (as my sisters and I loved to do when we learned French in high school)? Or do you agree it depends entirely on the story and its audience?

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