To Swear or Not to Swear – That is the F*****g Question

Having been brought up as a God-fearing Christian, when I began writing my first novel I was faced with a bit of a dilemma: should I allow my fictional characters to swear? I was born in the 1970s, when swearing was far less publically acceptable than it is today, and grew up with family and friends who, on the whole, didn’t swear. Personally, I think swearing is crude, offensive, and in most cases totally unjustifiable. It is used to emphasise anger, frustration, hatred, and a host of other vile human emotions. It often conveys arrogance, ignorance, or – when used in place of an informed counter-argument – simple laziness. And, in all cases, I believe it defiles our beautiful spoken language. That said, I am ashamed to admit that, these days, on occasion, even I find myself swearing: when someone cuts me up while driving, when I bump my head or stub my toe, or when my insomniac neighbour turns on his TV in the middle of the night and wakes me up. I hate myself for doing it. But, no matter how hard I try not to do it, the odd swear word still manages to slip out. Swearing has, over the past few years, somehow become almost second nature to me – a new habit that’s proving very hard to break.

With my writing I obviously have far greater control over what I say or, perhaps more importantly, don’t say. And from this notion my dilemma stemmed. I knew that my family and my non-swearing friends were apt to forgive the odd subconscious profanity, born out of frustration or stress, but would they be so willing to overlook a thoughtfully-written manuscript crammed full of them? I very much doubted it. As most of them had, from the outset, expressed interest in reading my work, I was keen not to write anything that might offend them. However, as a writer whose story was set in the present, in the real world, I wanted my characters to feel as real as possible. And, like it or not, today most real people swear. I was in a bit of a pickle. For several days, I fretted over what to do: should I permit just a couple of my characters to swear – maybe just the antagonists; should I restrict their use of profanities to mild curse words only; or should I cut offensive language from their dialogue altogether? In the end, I realised that my choice was simple: I could either be true to my writing (and to my readers) and keep my writing real, or not write at all. And since the latter was not an option I could live with, I chose to let my characters swear as offensively and as often as they so desired – and braced myself for the cries of disgust and disappointment.

I am happy to report that, as yet, I haven’t been disowned by any of my family or friends – it turns out that they are far more understanding that I gave them credit for. And it was, in fact, my aunt, who has, to the best of my knowledge, never uttered a single swear word in her entire life, who finally helped me fully vindicate my decision to allow my fictional characters to swear. She won’t watch a film or a TV programme if it contains even the mildest of profanities – but she was dead set on reading my book. Realising she couldn’t possibly read it as is, we came to what we both considered an agreeable compromise – and I gave her a copy with all of the offensive words blanked out. A couple of chapters in, she phoned me to tell me that she was enjoying reading my book, but that she could still tell what each of the swear words was supposed to be. And there you have it: even someone who never uses bad language is familiar with it, because today the average man or woman in the street, on the bus, at work, on TV, on film etc. swears … and, therefore, so should the average man or woman on the pages of today’s novels.

About Andy Wallace

Indie Author. My first novel, ORIGINS (a science fiction thriller), is out now on Kindle. Currently working on a sequel.
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13 Responses to To Swear or Not to Swear – That is the F*****g Question

  1. serenitywriter says:

    as writer’s, we need to unclench our inhibitions and let our characters be themselves. Some might steal, and others might kill, in the grand scheme of things, swearing is a little thing. 🙂

  2. I really appreciate this post. And the CLEAN layout of your blog (so I’m not overwhelmed sensorily or have difficult navigating). Though as a freelancer I haven’t had to deal with your pickle, as a writer who is a Christian, I can understand your dilemma. (I, too, let shameful lang slip from my mouth at such moments as you describe.) The thing is, the foul language keeps me from going further as a reader in what is otherwise solid work. Since I AM called to hold onto and fill my mind with what is noble and beautiful, I feel like I’m offering myself as a toilet when I willingly take in such foulness. At least you struggle with this. Most writers – even talented ones – vandalize their art with it just because cursing is common or they think it’s cool. A shame. To me, it only demeans their work in these cases. I have no advice for you bc it’s a bona fide dilemma for the Christian. But as with all dilemmas, it would be good to pray on it.

  3. If a character swears I think it’s fine though it loses all point if it’s overdone…if the author persistently swears at me I generally give up, much as I would in a conversation.

    Bear in mind that it is probably the single most complained-about thing in reviews on…..much less do in the UK

    • Andy Wallace says:

      Agreed, Andrew – I would give up on a book too it the swearing in it was excessive. I have used just a few dozen swear words throughout my 180,000 word manuscript – and they are mostly voiced by characters placed in extremely stressful situations. I figured the majority of real people would swear too if placed in similar peril – I know I would.

  4. Elaine says:

    What an interesting question (love the nod to Hamlet!). I’m not sure whether the rightness or wrongness of swearing is really the big issue (although it might be to some, of course) since even though it may be more common these days, it is still by no means ‘acceptable’ in polite society. The day you hear the Queen (or other reigning monarch) swear in public then perhaps times may be a changing…. (I remember an episode of family show ‘Doctor Who’ not so long ago when a (fictional, obviously) descendant of Queen Elizabeth II said “I’m the bloody Queen, mate!” …and how naughty that seemed)

    Swearing is more acceptable in some communities than others; I remember once having a ‘Pen Pal’ (remember those?) from the US come to stay. I don’t think she even noticed that she was swearing, it was part of her vocabulary; so much so that we decided not to introduce her to my in-laws, knowing that they would hate it (and possibly her). But if I were to write a story about people in her locale, I feel that I would be wrong to ignore the vocabulary.

    So, for my money, being a writer of fiction means creating characters your readers can believe in, regardless of your own personal belief. If you write about murders, even in gory detail, it doesn’t mean that you condone or enjoy killing people. You are telling a story, and to do that effectively you have to be believable. I think it is the same with swearing. Like it or not, real people do swear and if you think a character you have created would swear in certain situations, then swear he or she must, or you risk losing credibility.

    That’s all I wanted to add, really, for what it’s worth! 🙂

    • Andy Wallace says:

      Thanks Elaine – great to read your thoughts on the use of swearing in both real life and in fiction.

      It will be a sad day indeed when swearing becomes so acceptable that someone as respectable (and respected) as the Queen is heard swearing in public. I hope that day never comes.

      And I agree: it is a writer’s responsibility to be true to their characters and allow them to swear if circumstances dictate such a response – especially as swearing is so commonplace these days. I guess it’s a sign of the times that even some of the Harry Potter kids swore on film 🙂

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