I’m gonna do it. Here it comes. The words that make your mother cry:
Darn it all!
Well isn’t that just a nilly-tickle!
Um. Sorry, that was lame. My character would never say that.
And that’s the long and short of my argument in favour of shit-fuck-cunt-asshole and whatever other word you like as being the dirtiest of dirties.
If it’s in character, use it. Otherwise don’t.
You might have a story where such language is forbidden—and that’s ok, because then it’s not in character for anyone to be using it. They’re also probably not skinning dogs, or beheading traitors, or raping villagers.
But if your character is a regular cusser, then to pretend otherwise is going to come across as stilted. Likewise, if you have a character who rarely swears, then when they do it’s an immediate identifier of something really, really wrong. That can make for a great character/reader bonding moment.
Now there’s some tricky issues when you write historical, fantasy, or science fiction. The cultural context of swearing is so important that using terms which are out of place immediately compromises the integrity of the story. But along with this restriction on the easy-to-access swear, there’s great opportunity: making up your own, world-specific curses.
We know that all forms of cussing come from words not meant for polite conversation—which means these can quickly show what is or is not taboo within your society. Body parts and terms for various sex-acts are always popular, as are references to gods and goddesses. Derogatory terms usually come from an observable physical characteristic, often being simple words which time and hate have forged into powerful weapons. An immediate way to alienate two characters is to put them at cultural odds, and vicious smack talk is a quick way to do this. The responses of the characters can also say a lot about who they are and what they consider important.
One thing I’ve tried to do is to be consistent to both character and world, which I learned from enjoying that masterpiece of gone-too-soon television, Firefly. Set in the future, culture has become an amalgam of Western and Chinese influences, with cursing being done in Mandarin. A nice way around the censors. Plus, it also helped cement the flavour of a culture when it might be otherwise difficult to incorporate the Chinese influences without distracting from the story-focused dialogue.
So whatever your world, be true to your characters and setting, and things will be tickety-boo.
Or, fuck it—just do what you want, asshole.
This is an entry from my bestselling* book, A is for Adverb: An Alphabet for Authors in Agony. To read the entire alphabet, join me weekly for #WriteTip Tuesday. If you’re in a rush, get the whole book free by signing up here, or do this writer a solid and buy the book on Amazon.
*Totally a bestseller for, like, a day on Amazon.ca.