I know it’s Valentine’s Day and I should have written some kind of Valentine’s Day post, but I didn’t. It only actually just occurred to me, frankly (though yes, I did get little presents for my wife and kids so I’m not being the Valentine’s Day equivalent of Scrooge or anything), and I had already made some notes on this post, which is something I’ve been meaning to write for a little while. So happy Valentine’s Day already let’s get on with it!
Authors have an awful lot to think about when we sit down to write a book or short story (or script, or whatever), and one of those things is audience. Who is it you expect to read this book? Believe it or not, “everybody” is an acceptable answer. But most of us will be able to narrow that down some. There are books that are clearly written for certain age groups, and stuff like middle grade chapter books come with a set of rules—and rules that should be taken at face value, not as a challenge, if you want to see that book published and in stores and libraries. The brilliant fake children’s picture book Go the Fuck to Sleep aside, if you really want parents to buy your book and read it to their single-digit aged kids, Everyone Shits is not going to fly.
But what about when that decision is less obvious? What about all those other categories in which the rules are either unwritten or do not exist at all?
If you sit down to write a novel with an adult audience in mind, you probably still won’t see your book on the shelf if you swear in the title, but inside the text, all bets are off. We’ll leave out content questions, like how much detail in a sex scene is “too much,” if there is such a thing as “too much,” and at what point your fantasy novel becomes “erotic fantasy” and then “fantasy porn.” Another post at least in that territory.
For today let’s just keep it about swearing, those pesky four-letter words that every year seem to get less scary for bigger portions of the book-buying, TV-watching, game-playing, and reality show-loving audience. The late George Carlin’s list of the seven words you can’t say on television is obsolete by at least a few. So what can you get away with?
More than once—believe me—while I was at Wizards of the Coast, we sat down and discussed this issue. When and to what degree can we get away with “swears.” Back in the day, TSR (in response to some ridiculous claims from fringe groups that D&D promoted a belief in the occult) adopted the already hopelessly outdated Comics Code. When I first started there in 1995 that was forcefully wedged into my consciousness and time and again I cringed my way through deleting one word here, a sentence there, to try to keep myself employed. Set aside that my boss at the time, Bryan Thomsen, personally worked with author Simon Hawke on the Birthright novel War, in which we’re treated to S&M between a teenage boy and an adult man, a woman masturbating in a bathtub while the same teenage boy watches through a peephole, and more. But he was the boss and I wasn’t, so I had to keep it clean—and anyway, we’re talking about swears not sex. All that happened without anyone using the F-word. TSR authors knew the score, so I really didn’t have to cut out too many of Carlin’s seven words, but the author who gave us the exclamation, “Tymora’s Tits!” in a Forgotten Realms short story will remain nameless as long as he continues to make regular monthly payments.
The simple fact is that the kind of language you see in the average Martin Scorsese movie just doesn’t work in a medieval fantasy setting, which describes the overwhelming majority of TSR and Wizards of the Coast’s output. I didn’t really have to serve as the language morality police, but as the jarring-anachronism police. Let’s be honest, would The Hobbit ever have reached its classic status with this sentence in there somewhere: “Holy shit!” exclaimed Bilbo. “I’m fucking invisible!” It’s just not the way we expect people in Middle Earth to sound. Same for the Forgotten Realms.
But then people do curse, don’t they? And surely they curse in fantasy worlds, too, so how to handle it? Well, one method is to just do whatever the heck you like and let the chips fall where they may. Though I was under a particular edit at TSR and WotC most editors at other SF/fantasy imprints have no such limitation, and are free to publish a book that swears up a blue-streak if it makes sense in the story to do so.
A second option, which I desperately hope you will not follow, is to make up fake swear words to sub in for real ones. This is where we get jewels like “frak.” I hate that, and really want you not to do it. I would much prefer the third option:
If you really don’t think it sounds right for your medieval fantasy characters to adopt contemporary slang, write around it. Here are a few examples of what I mean.
From The Phantom Ship by Captain Frederick Marryat (1839):
For nine weeks did I try to force my passage against the elements round the stormy Cape, but without success; and I swore terribly. For nine weeks more did I carry sail against the adverse winds and currents, and yet could gain no ground; and then I blasphemed—aye, terribly blasphemed. Yet still I persevered. The crew, worn out with long fatigue, would have had me return to the Table Bay; but I refused; nay, more, I became a murderer—unintentionally, it is true, but still a murderer.
That was 173 years ago, when you can imagine that an editor at any publication would reel at the sight of the F-word spelled out for all to see. So the author stepped away from dialog and described the character swearing and blaspheming. This still probably created a stir in 1839, but it’s only an early example of a work-around that continued into the notoriously tight-assed 1950s, and even from some of the genre’s more outré authors, like this, from the short story “The Variable Man” by Philip K. Dick (Space Science Fiction, 1953):
Reinhart cursed wildly, dragging himself quickly toward the door. They had to get out, and right away. Sherikov had escaped.
As the 50s began to give way to the 60s, even the genre’s less “chancy” writers started to stretch the boundaries of appropriate language, as with this bit from the novel The Galaxy Primes by E.E. “Doc” Smith (Amazing Stories, 1959):
Cordeen had told him, with much pounding on his desk and in searing, air-blueing language, what to expect—or, rather, to expect anything, no matter what and with no limits whatever—but he hadn’t believed it then and simply could not believe it now. Goddamn it, such things couldn’t happen.
At least at Amazing in 1959 “Goddamn it” wasn’t considered in the category of language that was particularly “air-blueing.”
But even much more recent authors have indulged in this work-around, for lots of different reasons. Here’s a much more recent example from the novel Mainspring by Jay Lake:
Until he realized the sound he heard over his rough breathing was Malgus cursing.
Hethor caught up with his guide soon enough. Malgus was still working his way through a lengthy run of naval imprecations mixed with several other languages, along with a number of terms Hethor had never heard before.
Now, it is 2012, after all, and if you’re writing for adults, or teens, you can get away with pretty much anything as long as you’re willing to stand up to the occasional accusation of gratuitous profanity in an Amazon review.
If you’re writing in a contemporary, near-future, or future setting, and for an adult audience, let your characters sound like contemporary people. Horror readers, in particular, are not afraid of four-letter words. I kept this in mind while writing my own contemporary horror novel Completely Broken:
“Bitch,” Howard said again, then turned to look at Gilroy. “Know how much a decent set of tools costs?”
Gilroy could tell he expected an answer, but all he could do was shrug. Howard smiled almost imperceptibly in response then glanced down between Gilroy’s legs, and turned away.
“One fuck of a lot,” Howard answered himself.
Howard stood, slipped out of his graying jockey shorts, and sat back down.
“Anyway, I could’ve killed the bitch.” Then, almost wistfully, “Smacked the shit out of her, though. I mean, I beat that fuckin’ bitch so hard, she shit. Fuckin’ shit in her pants.”
Gilroy wanted to throw up.
So why all the potty mouth stuff? Is it just because the book is set in more-or-less contemporary America? Is that the only reason? No, actually, it isn’t. As with literally every line of dialog spoken by every character on every page of your book, these lines, and these specific words, are meant to move the story forward while simultaneously letting you in on who these characters are.
Howard, the character who’s swearing up a blue-streak here, is meant to come off as an asshole. I don’t want him to be at all “sympathetic” (at least not yet) and so very carefully and deliberately chose his overly-macho, hyper-aggressive, violently-demeaning speech pattern.
Every word is a tool in your tool box. Don’t throw anything away, but as with any sort of craft, the skilled craftsman has to learn when and how to use the right tool for the right job.