Bad words in fiction

On a recent bout with WriteClubFightClub a comment was left about how a good story doesn’t need profanity.  My story used two swear words, the s-word (once) and the f-word (twice), probably the reason why someone chose “neither” instead of voting for a story.

I was really tempted to write a response justifying my language but I decided that would be a bad idea.  Everyone has an opinion and that reader was simply mentioning theirs.  I don’t necessarily agree but that’s just my opinion.

I could probably find a list of the classic novels that include some form of profanity but honestly that wouldn’t change anyone’s mind or even necessarily make my point.  To me, swear words are just words, which means there’s a use for them just like any other word.  Also, just like any other word, they can be overused or misused.  I either use them or avoid them depending on the type of writing I’m doing and the potential audience.

In my story, Closing Time, the main character is a nurse who is at the end of a long, arduous, 16-hour day.  I wanted her to come across as worn, annoyed, exhausted, even petty at times.  She’d been in the trenches, probably been covered in blood and other bodily fluids all day, dealing with “emergencies” around every corner, at the end of her proverbial rope when she’s given just one more little job.  To me, the occasional swear word was appropriate for her.  I could have easily left those three swear words out but I thought they were more authentic than softer alternatives and I liked that edge they gave her voice.  They weren’t used that often either, there were three swear words in five pages of text, just enough to add a little spice without being overwhelming.

But, of course, that’s a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to theirs.

So, speaking of opinions, I would love to get some more on swear words, or specifically on the word choice for Closing Time.  Were the “bad” words overused, misused, do they distract from the story?  Were they acceptable but it could have been better without them?  Good, bad, something in between?  I would really appreciate honest feedback.  Follow the links, let me know what you think, good or bad.

3 thoughts on “Bad words in fiction”

  1. When it comes to readers/writers, I treat them all like people who are sitting down for a meal. Not everyone is going to like it the same. I read the story and it was used in a very casual and unforced way like the story would require. Personally, cursing is part of my language, so I’m more apt to not mind it in a conversation. And frankly, some stories require it.

  2. I personally enjoy swearing when it’s done well. It can be funny or telling about the mindset of a character. I know some readers are sensitive, but I think for the most part they are the exception. If you’re being true to a character’s voice, swear on.

  3. #Son of a bitch
    When I taught college writing classes, one of my first lessons was this:

    I’d write the following list: “shit, piss, f__k, lie.” (The f__k because, even in college, this was Texas and I could only push things so far).
    Then I’d write a new list, “defecate, urinate, intercourse, prevaricate.”

    I’d ask if they knew the difference between the two lists and they’d inevitably say the second was the list of “good words,” and the first “bad words.”

    I would then pose two additional questions. First, how can one be bad when the words in both lists mean exactly the same thing? Second, since when is “lie” a bad word.

    I would then explain the history of the English language, and how, when the Normans (French) invaded England, they undermined the native Saxon (which used shorter words because of its syntax) with the introduction of French, which used polysyllabic Latinate words which required more syllables because of Latin syntax. Thus, Anglo-Saxon words became perceived as “uncouth” (or the language of the illiterate and out of power).

    I also told them of a time when I was in Nashville and I ran into protestors outside of Tyndale House publishing objecting to the publication of the popular Living Bible. Their concern? Not the multitude of inaccuracies produced by the process of paraphrasing rather than translating. No. One of the protestors said, “They use the word son-of-a-bitch in one of the verses.” It seems 1 Samuel 20:30 could, most accurately, have been rendered “son-of-a-bitch,” but that was a “bad word,” which Christians shouldn’t use. They should have fudged, like the KJV (“perverse and rebellious woman”), or, at the very least, “son of a cur.”

    So we lie about language to play nice with words? Isn’t that equally dishonest? I pointed out Philippians 3:8 where Paul says, “I count it all as shit.” (It’s one of the things I picked up taking nine hours of intensive Greek at the University of Texas one summer.)

    Everyone who heard me protested, “the word is dung.” Which, of course, means “shit.” And the common Greek word “skubala,” used in the Bible only in that instance, was their version of our word “shit.”

    I don’t think I convinced anyone. Who needs facts when you have righteousness on your side.

    Still, as my character Pilgrim tells Lucifer in my novel Raising Hell, it would be a shame to remove shit from our vocabulary because it’s one of the most useful words we have. When you step on a tack, hit your head or put your foot into…well…shit, you don’t want to shout, “Oh, defecate.” “Shit,” however, sums it up perfectly and a true artist understands that sometimes it’s more important to paint with the reality brush than the pretty one.

    Your critics should never write fiction. They should reserve their writing for Sunday School.

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