The Writer’s Desk: No Way Around It: Bad Guys Say F-Words

So, I’m working on a Mormon-themed novel with some bad guys in it, one bad guy in particular. I know this isn’t a totally new discussion, but right now I’m in the thick of the issue of realistic language. I’m at the point where sometimes I delete the F-words and sometimes I add them back in or substitute “softer” crudities. But the bottom line is that my bad guys say F-words; they just do. And at least one of these guys is a very important point-of-view character who I just don’t feel I can sanitize, and plus his use of profanity helps differentiate him from the other main POV character, who is of the same age, gender, and similar background.

In editing manuscripts for Zarahemla Books, this issue has come up numerous times. I can think of at least three books that originally had F-words in them, but I believe that the authors and I agreed to pull all of these out, by the time the final version was struck (correct me if I’m wrong and anyone remembers reading an F-word in a Zarahemla title). It has been interesting to see authors originally feel that as part of their artistic truth, they had to reflect the way people talk, but as the publication date drew nearer, they sort of wimped out and pulled the F-words.

I’m one of those authors–in my novel Kindred Spirits, my conflicted Mormon female protagonist originally said some F-words when she was really mad (with good reason), but then I changed them to “effing,” which struck me as a funny reflection of her Mormon core that was true to her character: even when extremely angry, “effing” was as far as she could go. At the same time, I was aware that any readers of my novel would likely have fairly Mormon sensibilities, and in that case I didn’t think the artistic integrity outweighed the costs of potentially alienating readers. I believe the other authors who purged the F-words felt largely the same way.

The problem is, there are just so many Mormons–many of my own family members included, perhaps even my wife–who believe that a Mormon NEVER has ANY reason or justification to include a bad word like the F-word, perhaps especially in print that could potentially reach multiple people. But I don’t agree with this, of course: Just because a character in my book says the F-word does not mean that I advocate the use of the F-word or intend to start using it routinely in my own actual life. The reason I use it is because that’s how people like that character really talk, and to have them avoid profanity or use substitutes seriously undermines the story’s credibility, especially when you’re writing from the POV. (I’m fine with a pure POV reporting on what the bad guys are saying without quoting them directly, but some stories need an evil POV in them as well, and you just can’t whitewash that.)

Here’s, perhaps, some hypocrisy: While I can see having bad characters use the F-word in a story I write, I personally never allow taking of the name of God in vain, because to me that’s a clear violation of a commandment, whereas the F-word seems more just like this weird cultural taboo. But I can see where that’s a little arbitrary and a person could make an argument that the F-word’s connection to the sacred sex act, even though it is more often used simply as a generic intensifier, makes it nearly as offensive as casual or profane use of deific names. At the same time, I don’t think readers would sense a lack of realism if bad guys don’t take the name of deity in vain, as long as they’re using other real bad words instead. I’d MUCH rather have the F-word in my stories than profane use of the G-word or the JC-word.

One test you hear applied in Mormonism a lot is: “Would you give this to the Savior to read?” or some variation of that. Even with F-words, I honestly think I would, although of course it’s impossible to know what I’d really do if I really could personally hand something I wrote to the Savior to read. The reason I imagine I could is because I honestly believe I’m portraying the bad within an overall morally worthwhile story, and making the bad seem real can make the good seem more real, too. However, I wouldn’t want my kids to read it until they are mature adults. That’s another fallacy I see in Mormonism: depictions or imaginations of R-rated human reality that are not good for kids to read would also not be good for the Savior to read, as if he’s some kind of child who can’t handle full-bodied reality.

When I was editor of Irreantum, one time I let through an F-word in some story or essay. A woman wrote and complained that this hard little nugget of reality had “interrupted my rejoicing.” For one thing, that’s more of a pentecostal or born again thing to say, isn’t it? Probably some odd phrase out of the New Testament. And much more importantly, is that the only reason or even the main reason we read literature, to “rejoice”? I think there’s quite a bit more to it than that–I think literature helps us face fears and dangers and actual or potential realities and evil itself, perhaps even psychically preparing us to better face such things in our own lives.

Realistically, here’s what I predict will happen: When the manuscript is done, I’ll probably send it out to some national agents with the F-words (and other graphic elements) intact. If none of them bite or even if one does but gives up after two years of trying to sell it (hey, it’s happened to me before), then I’ll have to decide if I want to try marketing it directly to national and regional (non-LDS) publishers myself. If I manage to publish it nationally or non-LDS regionally, my wife will warn her sweet, pure Mormon family members not to read it but will probably still allow me into our bed. If that kind of publication doesn’t take place, I don’t see any LDS-market options for it even with the F-words taken out, because the LDS market tolerates only such a shallow little zone of actual or imagined reality, and my story probably goes way too far in many areas beyond language. The only option left would be Zarahemla Books, and if I reach that bottom rung on the totem pole, I suppose I’ll do a Zarahemla edit and take out many or all of the F-words, and perhaps I can sell 100 copies. But hey, at least that’s something!

So what do you think? Am I just rationalizing, or what?

PLUG: Zarahemla Books is currently having an overstock clearance sale, with several titles marked down 50% or more. Come browse at Zarahemla Books. Turning some of this overstock back into cash will allow us to publish more books in the future!

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10 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: No Way Around It: Bad Guys Say F-Words

  1. Eric Samuelsen says:

    I had a student who wrote a play about the pre-existence a few years ago. In her play, a couple find themselves on opposing sides in the war in heaven. They’re discussing/arguing the plan’s pros and cons, and the girl–who’s on Lucifer’s side–suddenly says ‘I know why you want to come to earth. You just want to f— me.’ It’s a shocking line, a powerful dramatic moment in a terrific play.
    It’s interesting: in many circles, the F word is just verbal punctuation, as significant as ‘um’ or ‘like’. I have some friends for whom this is true. I also think it’s just a word, with no moral significance in-and-of itself. Language itself, of course, has tremendous moral significance–how we use it, what we intend. We lie, we lash out, we deceive, we insult. I just it’s silly to think that saying that one syllable is automatically sinful.
    Culturally, the F word is really offensive to some people, and not remotely offensive to others. So what’s your audience?
    Final story: I have a niece who is estranged from the Church and from LDS culture. She’s a borderlander; the God she believes in is our God, and the plan she relies on is His, but she’s been hurt too much to continue in Church activity. Language is one of the ways she rebels. I love her dearly, we’re very close. And the F word has become a kind of code we use together. A way of saying ‘I love you as you are, I love you unconditionally.’ It’s a way of connecting. So I texted her on her birthday: ‘Happy f—— birthday!’ She did the same to me on my birthday. Our email exchanges are seriously F bomb intensive. And after our last exchange, she went to church for the first time in over a year.

  2. Katya says:

    I’d just like to third the request to get the spam under control. Deleting it after the fact is not good enough.

  3. Eric Samuelsen says:

    I’d love to de-spam. I just have no idea how.

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    And…so my comment got deleted too, I see.

  5. So what do you think? Am I just rationalizing, or what?

    Chris–of course you’re rationalizing, but so what?

    Go for the Gold and see what happens.

  6. James says:

    Wow. Eric’s f—- ministry.

    This is why we need every member to be a missionary. An official church representative just can’t reach out quite the way Eric can.

  7. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Something is happening that may be causing comments to be deleted that shouldn’t be. It appears that spammers have figured out how to insert their spam links and email addresses into the names and email addresses of real commenters, and when we delete spam, legitimate comments that are somehow connected by the spammers get deleted as well.

    I’ll notify our webmaster about this and hope that it can be fixed. If you posted a comment and it got deleted, please repost. And if you post a comment, and there is something saying that you are not yourself, but someone selling shoes or stationery or real estate, please understand if it gets deleted.

  8. For me, it is a matter of character and audience. I’ve confronted the dilemma directly twice, once in a long SF poem, a second time in a horror novel. In both instances, I allowed the F-word once. In the poem, "The Last Pastoral," is appears at a moment of intense emotional impact, when an astronaut on the moon has just seen the earth explode and his fellow astronaut has committed suicide, leaving him entirely alone. The poem was written for a non-LDS audience, with a definitely non-LDS character, and the abrasive sounds of the word were precisely what the line needed at that point (much more going on in the poem than that, of course). When I read the poem at the BYU Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy, however, I self-edited the passage; it was not the right word for the audience, and I was speaking the poem aloud–both considerations were crucial.

    In the novel, THE HOUSE BEYOND THE HILL, the word appears on the first page…for the only instance in the book. The character would think and speak in those terms–to replace it with another word would invalidate much of what follows, including an intensely spiritual climax. But I don’t allow him to use the word again. Having made a point about his mental state, there is no reason to repeat it.

    Part of my rationale in both the poem and the novel stems from my work with Stephen King’s novels. He has no qualms about language, one of the sticking points for many readers; on the other hand, he rarely if ever uses language gratuitously. For him, it is more often an instant clue to characterization and emotion than a specifically meaningful utterance. For other (non-LDS) writers, it is merely a placeholder, a sound filling a beat in the rhythm of a sentence. Still, when it appears, it should have a compelling rationale behind it.

  9. Great story, Eric. And Michael, I resonate with your comment as well. I happen to be rereading King’s "The Stand" expanded, about 25 years after I first read the initial published version. There would be something missing in King if his characters didn’t talk real.

    My latest rationalization is that by portraying a full-bodied reality complete with, when needed, F-words, I may be able to gain some credibility with certain kinds of readers that also allows me to portray some Mormon reality. For such readers, a spoonful of F-words may help the religious/spiritual medicine go down. Whereas someone who obviously avoids crude words due to religious sensitivities cannot be trusted to do anything but proselytize, when it comes to any kind of religious content.

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