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Friday, September 25, 2009

Curse Them All: Should You Use Them?

I have been reading an action-packed, violent book called Kell's Legend by Andy Remic recently and the author's style has brought me to this post. Those who are familiar with Remic are probably used to his unflinching desire to inject curse words liberally into his prose; they are also probably used to his rather detailed levels of violence, too. None of these things are necessarily bad, but they do make one think about the problem of cursing in fiction--or anything, for that matter.

The problem with saying "you should only do this when" is that such a phrase is inherently arbitrary. The reality is that people have varying degrees of tolerance for foul language, including myself. For example:

I typically have no issue with the f-word, s-word, b-word, crap, ass, and g-damn; however, I do have a problem with the n-word and the c-word, and more so with the latter than the former. Let me clarify before someone jumps down my throat. I can see when using the n-word might be necessary, particularly if you are trying to tell a certain kind of story about, perhaps, the civil rights movement in the United States or the Apartheid era of South Africa; it makes perfect sense that the n-word would show up in such instances. Outside of that, however, I see no use for it. The c-word, though, is, for me, pretty much intolerable; I can't stand the word for too many reasons to count, and there have been times when its use has forced me to stop reading.

That's my personal opinion. Mine is not the only one, and no one answer is any more correct than another. To illustrate this point, I asked folks on my Twitter account to respond to the question: Do you tolerate cursing in the books you read? Where are your limits, if any? Here are some of their responses (with some minor editing):

Dhympna: Yeah, I like cursing. I sometimes get annoyed by writers who use too many colloquial expressions. I get more annoyed by authors using particular vernacular and slang too much than actual cursing. In all fairness, I do tend to curse like a sailor, which is why it does not bother me.

Kaolin Fire: No limits so long as the story's interesting and it's relevant. Whatever.

GothixHalo: As long as the writing is good and the character development isn't horrible, cursing isn't a flaw. Using it as a replacement for good writing skills is a crime, though. Having to use curse words instead of competent words is pitiful.

mspuma: I only respect cursing if it seems realistic. Overuse of cursing in writing is just an old shock value trick. Cussing in and of itself doesn't offend me. They're just words. But like any emphasized phraze/cliche, it loses its punch with repetition.

Keeping all of these views in mind, it is important to note that there is no true answer to the question of cursing. What matters most is your personal taste. The market is not so black and white to make the claim for any particular level of restraint appropriate or right. In fact, because the market is so varied, it is only logical to assume that using curse words should be based on personal taste rather than anything else. Andy Remic, for example, has no qualms about using curses, and he has a market of readers who enjoy that. Other writers avoid curses entirely; they have a market two (and likely some overlap). Some people can't stand Remic, I'm sure, and others love him; Remic, I imagine, loves himself quite a lot. Remic's personal taste is clear: he likes to use curse words in his fiction. And he got published doing it.

That is not to say that you shouldn't demonstrate some restraint. Writing dialogue is not easy to do and having dialogue that is essentially a whole stream of f-words, s-words, and b-words will seem trite or perhaps unnecessarily vulgar. It all really depends on your audience. I often look at cursing as a combination of style and necessity; if the cursing is there only to be shocking or impedes the flow of the prose, then I'm out.

What about you? Where are your limits on the matter of cursing in fiction, as writers or readers?

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  1. I don't think I've ever read unpleasant cursing, but maybe I'm reading the wrong books. GRRM uses cursing very effectively, and even uses the c word in a manner that doesn't offend me (the gutters of a port town is a pretty good place to use it). Scott Lynch uses it liberally in The Lies of Locke Lamora , but then his MCs are thieves living in the underbelly of a city. Both manage to integrate this stuff brilliantly into their writing, making it natural and not obnoxious.

    Having said that, I prefer creative curses. In the fantasy genre there is little need to use the curse words we use. It's easy enough to create either random words and call them a curse, or to construct something that would be truly offensive in the culture you've created. Mostly I just avoid it and put 'he cursed', though I do have two swear words, 'talar', and 'ket', they aren't even hardcore their own little world, let alone the reader's head. It's a pain, though, because Chynor swears like a sailor in his head. Well, maybe not as creatively as a sailor.

    I'm done rambling now.

  2. That's wonderfully useful. Thanks for your thoughts! I'm looking forward to reading about your world, though. It's in the mail! Soon!

  3. In my world, there's no curse words per se, but beings in my world will just say "By Meikon!" (the high goddess in my world) or "Meikon's (insert body part of choice)!" in lieu of curse words

  4. SparklingBlue: I'm curious now what people think about the invention of slang in fantasy worlds (or science fiction worlds, for that matter)...

  5. Cussin's have always been used in fiction, and likely always will be. Even the Bard himself used a liberal spilling of swears across his plays, and he even uses cunt (sorry, the "c-word," we're all adults here.) in several plays like Henry IV and V, Loves Labours Lost and Titus Andronicus.

    I would use the rule, that if it improves comprehension of the character, or moves the plot forward, cuss words can be used. (I will make an exception if you like your dialogue to have a rhythm) If the swears do nothing for character or plot, then there is no real reason to use them.

    I personally do not like made up curses as a general rule. Cursing by a gods name is perfectly acceptable though, as that's an established and realistic use of language. Robin Hobb uses "Sa's Balls" and "Sa's Tits" reasonably often in her Liveship Traders series, and common swear words in other circumstances. However, sometimes the use of made up swear words makes the fiction seem like teen fiction, a term I use derisively. The word fuck (we are talking about swear words. It seems blinkered and naive to tiptoe around these words.) is so ancient in the English language, that it seems bizarre that if characters are speaking in English they would not use common curse words.
    The cusses we use are based around bodily functions, waste excretion, and sex. Other languages use the exact same motions to convey a similar meaning. Merde (the M-word?) in French, Juhua in Cantonese (damn accents) and Tutae in Maori. Curses in made up languages are likely to follow the same system, with words for sex, words for excrement, and likely vulgar words for body parts.

  6. Riadan: Well said. Thank you. Yes, there are a lot of parallels between the real world and fantasy worlds, as well there should be.