The other day, an author expressed concern when a reader castigated her over her use of swearing in her book. I pointed out that expletives had become commonplace since the 1980s. Sure, they were around before then, but not in such number to the point where they now seem all pervasive.
I recall the minor furore when Dick Francis first used the F-word. [As these blogs can potentially be family reading, I’ll refrain from spelling out the various examples]. Francis probably lost a few readers in libraries, but otherwise his inclusion of expletives didn’t affect his sales. Lincoln Child’s debut novel The Relic was spoiled in my view by the profusion of ‘in character’ expletives, yet the book helped the writing duo embark on a successful career. While s*** and f*** are now commonly used in books, there’s still a certain reluctance to use c***. In my library of reference books, I’ve got the dictionary of contemporary slang and the thesaurus of American slang: there are plenty of more colourful variations for insults and swear words.
So, putting expletives in your characters’ mouths is really a gut decision. If you’re not comfortable about it, there are alternatives. You simply type: ‘He swore.’ Or variants of that. The reader still gets the message. For my Leon Cazador crime short stories (collected in Spanish Eye), I simply wrote ‘He swore colourfully’ or whatever, since the stories appeared in magazines and children or a maiden aunt could pick them up.
What is the purpose of swearing? It can be seen as a lack of vocabulary. Some use it as punctuation and don’t even know they’re doing it. As someone said, ‘Once the expletives were deleted, he didn’t say much.’ A character swears because he’s exasperated, is in mortal danger, hurt, wishes to insult or is alarmed. It can be used as a pressure valve, to release tension, too. Whatever the reason, I feel that in writing that book or story, swearing should be used sparingly, to convey shock or other emotions; so yes, I used the F-word nine times in my crime thriller about Sister Rose.
Yes, in the real world expletives are as commonplace as those ums and ers with which people pepper their speech. But as writers we’re not writing the real world, we’re creating the impression of a real world – a different thing entirely.
My late father was in the army during WWII and was wounded in Sicily. I never heard him swear. Maybe he did, but clearly not in front of women or children.
If you’re writing a western, there’s some guidance, at least. The so-called code of the West has this to say, ‘Cuss all you want… but only around men, horses and cows.’ Though the writers and producers of Deadwood probably ignored that advice. And George Sicking said, ‘Real cowboys are tough but not vulgar. You can tell them by the way they treat women. If a man doesn’t respect women enough to clean up his mouth, he doesn’t respect himself.’ That’s not a bad credo to live by, in my book.