Have you ever been reading a book and been jarred by the use of a curse word? While I believe that swearing is something to avoid as a matter of personal virtue, I understand the dramatic effect and occasional necessity to a storyline. However, sometimes the use of curse words doesn’t fit with the story, or character, making it come across as more out of place than your maiden aunt in a mosh pit.
When deciding if a curse word is appropriate, try thinking about two things. One is the background of the character. For instance, how would the character’s mother react upon hearing her child swearing? Would ‘conniption fit’ describe her as she got out a bar of soap to teach the kid a lesson? If so, your character is not likely to use swear words easily, even as an adult, with the taste of Ivory soap lingering in his memory. Is the mother not around or doesn’t she care what the child said? In this case, it’s quite possible that using expletives has become second nature to your character.
The other thing to think about is the situation. Even a character living with flashbacks of soap dinners can be in a circumstance where a curse word will slip out. Someone pushed to an emotional breaking point can let loose words she never thought she could.
There’s a great scene in the movie Speed (1994, screenplay by Graham Yost) where you can see this playing out. Keanu Reeves, as Officer Jack Traven, is hanging through an access panel of the floor of a bus to check out a bomb that could blow him and the passengers up if the vehicle falls below 50 miles per hour. Alan Ruck is Stephens, a passenger using a cell phone to act as the relay for a conversation between Traven and another officer. After describing several aspects of the bomb, Traven reacts with a phrase that includes the ‘F’ word. Stephens’ reaction is hesitation and then to translate it as “Oh darn.”
Traven’s outburst is situational from seeing “enough C4 on this thing to put a hole in the world.” In light of this, any resistance he may have to swearing has broken down. On the other hand, Stephens doesn’t know about the C4 and hasn’t reached that point. He grapples with repeating the phrase then settles for something more compatible with his state of mind.
As people ‘mind their manners’ in everyday life, it’s up to you as an author to mind the manners of your characters. Making the dialog realistic to their temperament and situation is important when using curse words. Considering the impact of these expressions, tread carefully. Your character’s mother may be watching.
That’s an interesting way of thinking about whether to have a character curse or not. I never thought about it before reading your piece.
Thank you, Claire!
Sue, I’m so glad I took a curse word out of my last article. I had written it in for effect, just as you mention, but soon realized that it didn’t fit with my topic or my own personality. It was a good call. Not only is my mother watching, but my pastor too!
Kelly, You point out something equally important about using curse words in writing. If the language is contrary to the personality of the writer yet is in line with the character’s temperament, then the author may have a challenge making the usage believable. In this case, creative alternatives can be explored to show the drama without the curse words. Also, one can delicately ask for feedback on the usage from a trusted friend or fellow writer. 🙂
I, too, have been jarred out of a story by the seemingly inappropriate use of a cuss word. I can let loose like a truck driver, but I always temper my writing, yes indeed making sure it would be appropriate to the character and situation. Your citation of the scene from “Speed” also illustrates how curse words, when used sparingly and wisely, can actually be employed for comedic value. Such words have their place, but their effect must be carefully evaluated before usage. Good reminder, Sue!
Interesting thought. Even though I swear while talking I am careful not to while writing. I think I feel like my writing will be understood as where I don’t always think people get what I mean when talking, so the swear word comes out for so they know that I am serious about what I am saying. Thanks Sue!!!!
We do have to be more careful in our writing since we don’t have the advantage of body language or verbal responses to tell how the other person has taken what we’re communicating. Thanks, Yvonne!
I agree totally, Sue. Cursing also lowers a character’s social status. Narrators should never use foul language, or SHOUT, at their readers. It reflects badly on the author.
Good points, Phil. Thanks!
Ivory soap!!? You were lucky. We had to choke down naptha soap. Phel’s naptha? Fell’s naptha.
I feel for you. That stuff is nasty!