If you’ve been following this “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” series, firstly THANK YOU, secondly, you may or may not have noticed that I’ve generally been trying to write them to what would be, in movie terms, a PG/PG-13 level. That’s going to change a little today, as I’m going to be talking about profanity.
George Carlin had a famous routine about the “seven words you can’t say on television,” which debuted in 1972. Those words were:
(My inner editor is screaming at that list for redundancy, arguing that “motherfucker” is just a variant usage of “fuck,” but Carlin was a comedy genius and my inner editor is clearly not…)
Unlike television and movies, books don’t seem to have censorship boards and classification agencies like the MPAA or FCC. You don’t ever see a novel with an “Explicit Content” sticker like you might with a CD.
That means there’s a lot more freedom of the language that can be used (though I imagine fiction written specifically for the “Young Adult” or “New Adult” markets probably has a different standard), I know that in the things I write, I don’t use a whole lot of profanity, as it’s just not my style. I do swear a little in casual conversation, though I’ve noticed that what I, as an Englishman consider “a little swearing” is generally thought of as “frequent” in the US. Of course, my characters tend to use coarser language depending on their backgrounds, careers and the actions of the story.
After all, it would be an incredibly unusual mafia hoodlum who said “I say, old chap, could you place that firearm upon the ground,” if they burst in on a Mexican stand-off, rather than the snarled “drop the fucking gun” which would be more usually expected.
My NaNoWriMo for this year uses the fantasy genre, and that raises its own issues when it comes to swearing. Simply, why would these characters have evolved the same type of profanities and oaths we use in English? After all, an awful lot of words that are used as swearwords often started off as blasphemous oaths that were corrupted, which doesn’t necessarily make sense in a culture with differing theology. Of course, the big seven are more prurient and scatological in nature, which are nearly universal things. Though, to my ear it still sounds jarring to hear Tyrion Lannister call Cersei a “cunt” in Song of Ice and Fire. For whatever reason, that destroys my personal suspension of disbelief.
Another common approach to swearing in genre fiction, especially the televised version is to invent your own swear words, like Battlestar Galactica’s infamous “frak,” or Red Dwarf’s “smeg” which are both fairly obvious substitutions for “fuck” (fuckstitutions?). On the one hand, this is probably a more logical way of handling it, on the other, nearly all fake curses sound ridiculous. After all, how could you hear someone use “felgercarb” for “shit” and take it remotely seriously? Better, I think to just allude to it, as J.K. Rowling tended to do with Ron Weasley’s dialogue in the Harry Potter series. Saying a character cursed, or swore or similar without specifying gets it across sufficiently, though without the same impact that a solid cathartic “FUCK!” might.
How do you approach bad language in your works? And do you allow for cultural differences? After all “bollocks” and “wanker” are hardly universal swears, but they are pretty well known in English speaking countries.