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.