Why my characters swear so damned much
(The title is the first way I thought of titling this post and was too perfect to not use.)
I’d never really thought about how much swearing there is in my books until it was pointed out in a review. The review said that Lyndsey “likes to swear”. This struck me as an odd statement. I don’t think of swearing as something somebody likes or doesn’t like to do; I think of it as something a person chooses or chooses not to do, same as using any word or phrase.
Swearing, to me, isn’t a big deal . . . as is obvious from just about every blogpost I’ve ever written. I blame my mother and grandfather. (Huh. That’s the second time today alone I’ve blamed Grandpa for my opinion of something. I sometimes think if I ever wrote an autobiography I should call it It’s All Grandpa’s Fault. And I’m pretty sure if I did he’d be smiling in the afterlife and pointing it out to everyone else around.) Swearing was something kids were supposed to avoid in my family; adults not so much.
In some books, I agree with the oft-stated wisdom that infrequent swearing increases the impact of what swearing there is. For instance when Molly Weasley says “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” in the final Harry Potter book, you know just how fucking bad shit has gotten. You’re reading what is still, by marketing if not really by subject matter by that point, a kid’s book, and someone just said bitch. It’s not playtime any more; this duel is for real!
But I don’t write that kind of book. By the second paragraph of Crown of Eldrete, someone’s been casually killed. In the fifth, someone’s stabbed in the heart. In the sixth, someone is disemboweled. All of this is mentioned utterly casually. I think that makes it pretty damned clear that I’m not writing for kids, here. Since I’m not writing for kids, I’m not watching my mouth or my characters.
Yes, I know there are people who are offended by swearing. Like I said yesterday, if something in my books offends you, quit reading. I don’t mind!
My characters swear, ultimately, because my approach to writing is to be true to the characters and the reality of the setting above all else.
I was going to use Lyndsey as an example here, but since there’s no way to do that without making it look like I’m doing the “complaining about a negative review” thing — which isn’t my intent at all, I’ll talk about Bobby from my upcoming novel No More Lies. There are times when I wonder if he’s forgotten there are adjectives besides “fucking” and “damned”; that’s how much he swears. Why?
For the same reason he sometimes uses grammatically atrocious sentences: That’s how he talks. It’s what’s true to him. He’s blunt, a bit rude, a bit uncouth, and has spent nearly a decade in the military. To me, when a character with these traits doesn’t swear, it’s jarring. For example, I’ve been reading the original Marvel GI Joe comics for the past few months. Since they were either during the final days of the Comics Code mattering or right after it went away and were for a toy, the harshest word a character ever uses is “heck”. One character uses “dag” a lot at first. I giggle every single time. The guy who uses “dag” grew up in a gang in Detroit and then served at least two tours in ‘Nam and now has spent who-knows-how-long-because-the-timeline’s-a-bit-screwy years fighting terrorists. So, I giggle. Because “dag” is so very much not the word a real guy like that would use . . . at least not without his friends giving him hell for refusing to swear.
This is always why some of my characters don’t swear very much. It’s not that they like or don’t like to swear, which still strikes me as a very bizarre concept. It’s that those aren’t the words they’d use in those situations. I don’t like to swear nearly so much as I just find those are the words that best fit what I’m trying to say. And I have an inordinate fondness for the hard-k sound, so I use “fuck” a lot when other words would, admittedly, work just as well. (True story: I sometimes take hard-k’s out of words I make up because so very, very many of them already have at least one in there. That’s how much I like the sound. And that’s probably one of the most “I’m really not normal” things I’ve ever typed . . .)
And the “swearing is lazy” argument is just plain stupid. It’s no lazier than overusing any other word.
As for the “you could make the same point without using such horrible language!” argument, which I’ve, thankfully, never gotten but have seen another author — one who I think sometimes swears enough that it at least seems like he’s doing it just to prove how edgy he is — get frequently . . . yes, I could make the same point, but could I make the same point with the same impact? Probably not. Let’s look at the second sentence of the current draft of No More Lies:
I was scared . . . no, I was fucking terrified . . . but there was no way I was going to let him see that.
Yeah, I could take “fucking” out of there and . . . well, no. It doesn’t have the same meaning. Not quite. Because “fucking terrified” is more terrified than just “terrified”. (And the italics stays because “fucking terrified” is even more terrified than “fucking terrified”.) And I don’t think the fact that the word “fucking” is used, oh, I’d say at least twice a chapter, throughout the whole book lessens the impact of that one bit. Coming back to the topic of my last blogpost, it’s the intent, not the word that matters. When Bobby, chapters later, describes one of his best friends as “fucking smart” in a sentence where he could just as readily have said “very smart” or “really smart” or, even, “brilliant”(oh, there’s a topic for another rant . . .), it doesn’t suddenly make the use of “fucking terrified” in the second sentence less impactful, amazingly enough.
(To the reviewer who I quoted at the beginning: You just gave me something to think about; I’m not complaining about your review. Except for this: It’s spelled “Lyndsey.” If you ever happen to see this, if you could edit your review to spell her name right, I’d appreciate it. Names being misspelled is a pet peeve of mine, sorry.)