I admit it. I am a cusser. Cleaning up my language has been on my New Year’s resolutions list for the last two decades but has seen little in the way of improvement. My husband doesn’t swear. Never. He makes me look bad, but I’m glad one part of the parental force can be a good example in my household.
It’s interesting how a curse can define a society. The Swedes swear by the devil. Americans swear by divinity. The British swear by some of the strangest things. What does that say about those societies? I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to effectively psychoanalyze an entire country. But it is interesting to me.
All that said, I don’t swear in my books. I’ve written a few curses into a draft or two, then grumble, swear out loud, and delete those curses out of my drafts again. It’s not because I don’t want to reflect reality. It’s not because I don’t think real people swear. I am a real person and swear a lot, but found that I just don’t want to go *there* in my writing. I can’t commit to the curse.
Other authors have this same issue. Not all authors, of course. Some don’t have any issue with it at all, and their pages are littered with curses. Some authors want to put them in but don’t because, like me, they can’t commit. Some would rather tear out their eyes than use a curse. And some do something that I call Fakes.
I’ve seen Fakes done well. In the recent Whitney winning book, Paranormalcy, Kirsten White uses a fake swear and she does it in a way that works. The main character has a friend who is a fish and lives in a huge water tank. They communicate via a computer translator. The computer does not translate swear words. It instead replaces those words with “bleep.” So the main character hears bleep as a cuss all the time. It’s basically a part of her upbringing. So guess what swear word she uses?
Yep. That girl bleeps. It’s clever. It’s hilarious. And it’s believable because of the set up.
But I’ve also seen fake swears done so poorly it makes me feel embarrassed for the author. In a particular story we were given an antagonist so evil that he singlehandedly wiped out thousands of lives and didn’t even feel a tremor in his hand as he did it. This was the kind of bad guy who you’d expect to find in the park kicking babies and puppies around the soccer field just for fun. THAT kind of bad guy–the kind with no morals, no sense of value, nothing redeemable.
And his language?
Freaking. Wench. Darn.
It could have been played off if we’d been given more character development. Maybe he had a governess who beat him every time he cursed, so even though he was genuinely evil he couldn’t swear. But no such back story ever presented itself. All we know is that the guy who had no problem slicing a person’s throat couldn’t bring himself to utter a cuss word. It weakened the character. He became clownish. And because of that, the entire story was weakened.
Am I saying you should swear?
Am I saying you shouldn’t?
Nope. Not that either.
I’m not your mother. I won’t wash your mouth out.
I’m saying if you can’t commit fully to your language choice, then don’t go there AT ALL. No corny substitutes. No less-than-powerful interjections. Just a bad guy giving orders without unnecessary epithets. “Bring that wench in here!” is almost comical, like a pirate. Whereas, “Bring her in!” said in a low menacing voice from a guy who means to slice the girl to ribbons for her treachery . . . THAT can be powerful and frightening.
I am not saying you should swear. I am not saying you shouldn’t swear. I AM saying that whatever you decide to do, be committed to it. Be prepared to back it up. And you will have to back it up. If you use language that can be considered offensive, you will be called out for it, so make sure you’re prepared to deal with reviews, the emails, the feedback.
Because a curse by any other name still smells like . . . feet that were in soggy shoes all day.
Or, you know . . . whatever smells really bad to you.