Profanity in Novels

It’s that time of the week – Discussion Tuesday.

From those who are new, each week I post a topic (relevant to my WIP) and try to unravel the mysteries and perspectives of it.
This week’s topic is:

Profanity in novels

Profanity is an interesting topic to me because of people’s vastly different reactions to it both in real life and literature. Some people cringe and can’t take swear words at all, others aren’t bothered by them in the slightest and some people consider them only to be effective when used in a good context. You even get those who feel profanity is a crutch for the inarticulate.

Some readers are turned off by even a single curse word, whereas nobody will buy your book simply because you use raw language.

As a reader: What is your thoughts on profanity in novels?

As a writer/ author:  Do you use profanity? If so, why?

In my opinion, humans get angry. They crave precise expression.  If you want to write realistically about certain milieus, such as wharves, mines and battlefields, well-written raw talk can make your characters seem lifelike and more authentic.

But even if real people use vulgarism every other word, it’s unnecessary for you to make your characters talk exactly that way. Just as with dialect and accents, using raw talk wisely serves to keep the reader grounded in your imaginary world, while avoiding the potential fatigue of overdoing it.

We are writers and most of the time other words can be used.

What do you think?

Post your comments and answers below. If you think someone has an interesting point of view and answer, please invite them or share this post to them.

#DWTSmith #profanity

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27 thoughts on “Profanity in Novels

  1. People in the ‘real’ world use profanity. If it fits the character, use it. It’s just another of our tools. (Can’t have all of our characters sounding like rocket scientists, you know? Or all the same) We’ve all heard and read the words. Anyone offended by judicious use of profanity should stick to children’s books and books by religious writers.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. There is a long history of profanity in English literature. If it’s good enough for Geoffrey Chaucer (“swyve”) and Will Shakespeare (whose humor was heavily laden with sexual innuendo and bodily functions, btw; Will liked a good fart joke and sometimes couldn’t stop the “ass” jokes), it’s good enough for modern writers.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think a judicious use of profanity is acceptable when the situation warrants it, particularly when the character is written in a way that implies they would use curse words in that situation. In that case, deliberately avoiding profanity seems almost like author intrusion. A hardened character from a gritty background using a word like darn instead of the curse word is going to stand out to me far more than the word itself and will make that character feel less real to me.

    Of course, if the character deliberately avoids profanity, such as the heroine in my upcoming book who has a “swear jar,” then I think it’s important to make that clear in some way. In her case, she is about to swear, but cuts herself off mid-word and recalls her overflowing swear jar. In that case, the avoidance of profanity fits with the character.

    As a reader, I prefer that curse words are used very sparingly and only in a place where they will have impact, because otherwise, it does seem like lazy word choice, even if people regularly use them in dialogue. People also regularly use umm, err, and ahhh too, but as writers, we should cut those verbal pauses out of dialogue unless they add to the story in some way.

    So, I’d say that, like every other word choice, using profanity should serve a purpose in your story.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s good to hear the perspective as a reader.
      Overall, I think as a reader/ writer we need to use profanity sparingly or as much as it adds to the character’s profile.

      “Profanity should serve a purpose in your story.”

      A lovely quote to sum up this weeks discussion 👌😃

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think that certain profanity used for emphasis is a good thing.
    I have used words like “bastard” in my writing but would never use the word in my own life because I do not want a vulgar vocabulary. I only use it for extreme emotion.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I only use profanity myself sparingly. For me, swearing should be used for effect. I use the same philosophy with my characters. Although, if the character is not particularly smart or fueled with common sense then they might use it more. But only because they don’t know enough words. They get to a point and just swear because that’s what they know.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Exactly, it adds depth to the character because like you said, ‘they don’t know enough words’ it shows their history and education.
      Has one of your characters used profanity which the reader wouldn’t expect?

      Like

      • In my current WIP, the villain of the piece uses profanity when he starts to act like his true self. When he stops putting on a front, sophisticated gangster type with great manners, he them swears because it is more natural to him. And he revels in it to some extent as his world collapses around him. I hope it is unexpected for the reader as for most of the story he is calm and controlled. I have also used this for my main character. He shocks his friend by using profanity and that leads her to see he is changing because of what he is going through. Have you used unexpected profanity in your work?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sounds like you have done your homework with developing a well-rounded villain.
        I have in one of my short stories. The protagonist lost everything. He kept his calm until boiling point and takes it out on his brother.

        Like

      • For some reason, my villains end up more rounded than my heros. But then the edits kick in and I round them both off. So to speak. Is the brother responsible in the short story or is he just closest to the protagonist?

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s good to see.
        No, he has been there for him and just “happened” to be the closest thing standing to the protagonist. It ends pear-shaped but they resolve their issues and life goes on, trying to rebuild the shattered pieces of his domain

        Like

    • “ if the character is not particularly smart or fueled with common sense then they might use it more. But only because they don’t know enough words. They get to a point and just swear because that’s what they know”

      This explanation, I take issue with. The biggest swearers/cursers I’ve ever met in my life were all graduate students in English. Most of whom now hold doctorates in that field (e.g. are smart and have extensive vocabularies) and still curse like the proverbial sailors.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Fair enough. Actually, I’ve met and have friends who are quite smart but lack common sense so I think they swear sometimes without thinking. Just my opinion. I have read that smarter people swear more. It’s a sign of intelligence apparently. Do they swear when they’re making a point or just in a majority of conversations you have with them?

        Like

      • In general, private, conversation. Not in their professional roles. I’m not sure common sense really has anything to do with it, though (these days, most academics come from “down to earth” working class roots, within 1-2 generations, if that says anything).

        There have been a lot of studies that have shown people who “swear” more tend to be more trustworthy people.

        Like

  6. There is not such thing as a bad word. Every word serves a purpose. If it is not purposeful in our writing, we shouldn’t be using it. Same goes for adverbs or wild dialogue tags or any other matter of word choice we have to make. As for myself, I tend to not write a lot of profanity. Which is weird, because I cuss like a soldier in real life (I am one, so I am authorized). I see that I use more profanity when I write military characters, such as in mil-SF stories. As others have said here, it all depends on the character you are writing. The one thing I will not do is create an arbitrary restriction (i.e. absolutely no swearing) on myself before I even start writing the story. This came up recently for me. The lead of a group/series I am a part of recently mentioned wanting everything the group writes to be teen or everyone rated. I am very reluctance to agree to such a thing, even though the content I have written for the series so far is relatively mild and mostly fits that level. One of the characters might need to let out an f-bomb in the future, and I don’t want to be in a position where I cannot write the characters honestly and organically. Great topic!:D

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes! We can’t have restrictions on our characters because if we do then are they being shaped organically, will they become 2-D and not fulfill a character arc?

      I love how this topic has evolved! Thank you for always adding your intriguing and interesting perspective. 😃

      Liked by 1 person

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