When of When not to use Profanity and Other Raw Talk in Fiction.
Before we discuss the pros and cons (some might say there are no pros) I would like to talk about the categories:
Profanity: Though it is often used to denote any objectionable word, it literally means. Words that are considered profane that is words forbidden by religious doctrine (Judeo-Christian), which means taking the Lord’s name in vain. For the love of God, stop complaining or Jesus Christ, look at the size of that thing!
Cursing: A curse calls upon a deity, or fate to bring harm on someone or something.
Damn this zipper! Mild curse
God—–her! Strong curse
Hell can also be used as a curse…God to hell!
Or as mild profanity…Oh, hell it’s him again!
To swear means to take an oath or to proclaim and oath.
As God is my witness.
By God, I’ll show you!
Swearing can also be used to bear witness.
I swear you’re the best cook in town!
Obscene means something disgusting, or morally abhorrent, often associated with sex. The F word is considered the most objectionable of these and adding mother as a prefix increases the impact. At times the words, freaking, flipping, fricking and frelling are used to replace the F word.
The word screw is a milder word. The F word and the word screw can be used to describe a sexual act but also to describe the act of being taken advantage of.
That guy screwed me out of $500 dollars
Also words referring to the pelvic area, male and female are also considered obscenities
Vulgarism covers many areas. If it’s crude and objectionable and is used outside or aforementioned categories, it is probably a vulgarism. Insults regarding the circumstances of one’s birth are considered vulgarisms…Son-of-a bitch, bitch, bastard…. The same is applicable to jackass and the two-syllable word that begins with the word ass…… Crap is not considered vulgar, but other bodily functions associated with empting bladder and bowels are vulgarisms.
The decision to use or not to use the discussed categories is a personal one that divides authors and readers alike. Some popular tough-guy authors like Lee Child use no profanity, yet author Tom Clancy does. Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead, about men in WWII, who used the F word in every other sentence (as a noun or a verb or both), was asked not to. Mailer, so to not offend the readers substituted the word Fug, which generated criticism and discussions regarding the reality of war.
The movie, ‘Saving Private Ryan is laced with coarse language. To preserve the authenticity of that moment in time, it was shown by one of the three major networks without any words bleeped or edited. If you have watched the Game of Thrones, House of Cards or South Park …well need I say more?
Some readers are ‘turned off’ by even a single coarse word, while others are not. There have been authors who have shunned all categories of colorful language and have been successful as have authors that have used it.
Why use coarse language?
Characters become angry and crave a precise expression to express this anger and there’s something about cursing or using vulgar language that acts as a release valve (darn it doesn’t seem to have the same effect as Dammit). Most of us have experienced a moment when a good old-colorful word(s) expressed our true feeling at that moment and so it is for our characters. If your setting is the wharves, or mines or battlefields, well written raw talk can make your characters seem life-like and more authentic. However spicy language works best when used sparingly or in moderation. This preserves the element of the unexpected, which can be a pressure reliever for both character and reader.
Should characters be true and honest to their voices? Tyrion and Jaime Lannister use colorful words because it fits their respective mindsets, yet Jon Snow and Brienne of Tarith, rarely if ever use coarse language. Aside from conveying anger or frustration, raw talk can often be illuminating as it reveals how a character really feels about something. I love eating donuts as opposed to me love eating G D donuts.
Knowing your character’s mindset and station in life, helps determine their vocabulary. One would expect soldiers in the Vietnam War to use raw language, however if you use raw language continually it takes away from its effectiveness as opposed to using it sparingly thus the author should always consider their character and use common sense. If you have a suburban mother who never swears in public, but finds a police car behind her with flashing lights or when she sees the dog pee again on the carpet might utter the word s…t, which may prove quite effective in conveying her immediate thoughts.
Shakespeare did not use obscenities in King Lear but very imaginative vulgarisms based on historical references. Creating insults based on historical references can convey your character’s feelings towards another: Senator Smith is to congress as Ebola is to West Africa. Often brainstorming various aspects of your character(s) and their circumstances can convey the same message as does swearing: He was as appealing as baboon’s butt, or I see your distemper shot took or she has all the grace and charm of a rabid dog.
In the end it is the author that makes the final determination to include or exclude colorful language. The scripts for many of cable and pay-for-view shows (The Daily Show, The Nightly Show, Last Week Tonight and Bill Maher are a few examples) use coarse language throughout the show, while the Colbert Report did so sparingly. Many comedians on Comedy Central fall into three general categories: comedians who do not use profanity, comedians who use it sparingly to emphasize a point to those you use it throughout their performance.
In closing, Star Wars does not use raw language or vulgarisms yet Fifty Shades of Gray does. I can understand the logic for both, the former is a different world where swearing is not a part of that culture’s norms, values and mores, while the latter it is as it seeks realism and authenticity. How and why an author chooses to incorporate one or the other, or a compromise using both, is predicated on not only the author’s sensibilities but also how they wish to present their character(s) to the public.
© 2016, Raymond Tobaygo. All rights reserved.
The author has granted WritersCarnival.ca, its affiliates and syndicates non-exclusive rights to display this work.