On Curse Words in Fiction | 0.2

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If there’s one thing that has inevitably made people nervous about my fiction, it’s the fact that it uses curse words. From the perspective of someone who knows me in real life, I absolutely see how this could come across as contradictory.

The fact that I’m a devoted Christ-follower isn’t exactly a secret, as I’ve referenced faith many times on this blog. Christians are not exactly known for being tolerant of profanity, even though to me personally it’s no indicator of someone else’s spirituality. It is, however, one of mine, and my friends have probably noticed I avoid cursing to the point of possible prudishness in real life. It’s safe to say I’m uncomfortable speaking profanity… I’m just not uncomfortable writing it in fiction, apparently. 

Additionally, if you read the rest of Normal Happenings, not only do you find the blog to be completely free of profanity, but it’s downright family-friendly. What gives? Why does Dysontopia have so many curse words? And how come they’re not only used, but used so accurately and realistically in relation to someone’s stream-of-consciousness?

These are good questions. Put simply, I’m writing for a character.

If you’ve read the works of John Green – my closest mainstream inspiration regarding characterization – you’ll see that Turtles All the Way Down and The Fault in our Stars average about one curse word every two pages. That is down from his earlier works like Looking for Alaska, which has about one per page. I find Alaska to be overkill, but I see what the author is doing. But in Fault and especially Turtles, profanity is used as an ingredient to make beautifully broken characters that I almost instantly fall in love with.

When I began writing Dysontopia, I had no idea just how attached as a writer I’d get to Sydney. To me, she very much authentically exists. I have a conscious knowledge of what she’d think and how she’d react to any given situation, which is the secret sauce of writing from the first-person perspective. Therefore, Sydney curses. It’s an invariability due to who she is as an individual.

You were dropped into the story in medias res – in the middle of things – so it may not be immediately obvious how messed up Sydney is. She may be the protagonist, but if you’re looking for a pure hero, you may be better off looking towards Millie. Dark distractions constantly take over her life and her trains of thought, incapacitating her from becoming the symbol of purity some of you want her to be.

But I’m also very secure in the knowledge that she is not me. Sydney is not an allegory for how my mind works, therefore she is not a reflection of me. Her personality may be derived in part from components of my life I struggle with, but she is even more-so the result of intense people-watching and relating to the struggles of the people I love. I am not prepared to sacrifice that internal exploration for the sake of acquiescing to those uncomfortable with profanity.

Sydney is not irredeemable, though, so I urge you to bear with her. Fight through the struggles with her, and love her despite her flaws. She has a lot to say about not only her struggles, but the human condition in general. And learn from her, so when the storms come in real life you can weather them with more grace and be the idealized person you’re driven to be.

How do you feel about curse words in fiction? What are some examples of how it’s used effectively or ineffectively? Should it be used, or should writers try to find other ways strong emotion or frustration? Let me know in the comments, and as always I welcome your feedback!

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  1. As someone who curses, I find myself relating to Sydney. She responds in ways that I would myself or how I would expect someone to. I’ve read novels without cursing and novels with cursing, and I can’t say that I “prefer” one over the other. The House of Night series contains cursing but it very much is tailored to individual characters. Zoey, for example, says “ah, hell” and “bull poopie.” It gives some personality to her character.

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  2. Just started reading your Dysontopia, and to be honest her cursing didn’t strike me at all. I don’t tend to swear in everyday speech, but I don’t hold it as wicked and when writing if a character would swear, then they swear in my writing. I absolutely do not think that a writer SHOULD find another method of communicating frustration or whatever they are trying to communicate. That isn’t to say they can’t explore interesting alternatives. The TV show “How I met your mother” handled drug consumption in a similar way. Every time it was referenced, the characters were instead eating huge sandwich. It became their recurring thing and the viewer knew it. Ultimately it depends what genre you are writing and who your audience is. Young Adult would expect some milder swearing, though perhaps not the ones considered to be the worst. For me it is another tool, and is only ineffective when misused – for instance I can’t stand it when it is every other sentence for no good reason. And that is not a ciritcism of writing, it is an annoying habit of speech I have observed in some instances. Good post

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    • Thanks John, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I appreciate the thoughtful comment. I love that you cited different examples for different audiences – the mark of effective communication. It’s good to know that I’m on the right track with her stream-of-consciousness characterization, since she is so clearly dealing with mental issues causing her pain. Anyway, not sure why I wasn’t following your blog earlier, but I am now! Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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