The Big Lebowski is a fine film in which the word ‘fuck’ is used 260 times.*
“Bollocks,” said Aragorn, spitting into the frozen midden, the winter’s chill harsh against his cheek. “We’d have been fine if it wasn’t for all these fucking orcs.”
Now, you’re unlikely to remember this line of dialogue from The Lord of the Rings. Back when Tolkein was writing, this sort of language didn’t appear in mainstream fiction all that much, if at all. But today, writers of fantasy and science fiction can feel free to pepper their dialogue with profanities.
Horror, I believe, set the trend for this. But then, horror didn’t really have the same obsession with romantic heroism and lofty human ideals that fantasy and science fiction did, so was always in a better position to open those particular floodgates of shitfuckery. Nowadays, even popular videogames contain swearing. You’ll find it in poetry, too, and hear it at the theatre. Profanity is ubiquitous and it’s here to stay.
This doesn’t mean that it has free reign, though.
In popular culture, there are techniques that enable TV and film makers to employ swear-words without really having done so. In the popular drama House, for example, the main character is routinely referred to as an “ass”. We know they really mean “asshole”, but by using the alternative, they not only convey precisely what they need to, they do it without stepping over the boundaries set by the broadcasters and channel executives. We know what they mean… and that’s what matters.
This happens in translations, too. In the Japanese dub of Die Hard, our hero John McClane drops an improvised explosive down a lift-shaft and says, “Yippee kay-yay, motherfucker.” When this film was dubbed for the Japanese market, the insult became “you country bumpkin” instead. It’s offensive, in the context of Japanese culture, but not as offensive as the original dialogue.
“Goodness me, but this situation vexes me no end!”
Interestingly, when movies are translated the other way, the opposite happens. Japanese films, especially anime, often have swearwords added. Baka, which simply means idiot or fool, usually becomes something much more adult when dubbed for the Western market, because a hard-boiled cop doesn’t say, “I’m going to kill you, idiot,” in Western culture. He says, “I’m going to kill you, asshole.” The former just doesn’t make sense to us. It doesn’t feel authentic.
Put simply, if someone wrote Lord of the Rings today, you could bet that at some point someone would utter the word ‘fuck’… and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid, because in the midst of all that drama and violence, we would expect people to lose their rag a little.
So should my characters swear?
There’s no reason not to, as long as your judgement is sound. If you’re writing a YA novel, it’s probably not a good idea to be too crude. Otherwise, feel free. Just make sure it’s in character. The High Elf Prince is unlikely to tell someone to “piss off”, and the grizzled soldier is unlikely to shout “fiddlesticks!” when he loses an ear in a duel. But with a little taste and a feel for what’s right you can ensure that if there is swearing, it at least comes out of the right mouth.
There are going to be those who don’t like to swear too much in their writing. Now, my characters swear a little, but not too often. They swear less than is realistic, in all honesty, considering what I put them through. But I like to use bad language sparingly, rather than cram as much in as possible, mainly because it can come across as juvenile if you do it too much, as if you’re simply trying to shock like some nihilistic internet troll. That gets old very, very quickly.
So how do we get around the issue of authenticity? For instance, how do we recount discussions between hardened soldiers without using hundreds of expletives?
Many moons ago, I took a linguistics course at the University of Kent. As you might expect, this often involved phonetically transcribing recorded speech. The one thing I took from this is that human beings do not say what they think they say. Let’s put this into context: say I ask a friend how she is, and she replies, “I, uh, well, you know, I think I’m, yeah, I’m fine, I suppose.” If I was writing this as dialogue in a book, her reply would have been recorded as, “I think I’m fine,” or “I’m fine, I suppose.” It conveys the same thing.
Notice in most novels people speak very clearly. They say what they mean. They don’t jumble their words. In reality, they wouldn’t speak with the same clarity, but fiction isn’t reality. In many ways, it’s an idealised version of reality, in which people enunciate perfectly all the time. Writers often take this further. In The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, a character makes a long-winded philosophical speech whilst duelling, something which is pretty much impossible (although there is a sense of irony to the scene). But we forgive this, don’t we? This is because we subconsciously accept, I would say, that the writer is giving us an approximation of what would actually have been said. When two thieves meet and discuss their plan, we accept that the writing doesn’t convey all of their slang, or their dialect. For the sake of the reader’s comprehension, the writer has to sacrifice a certain amount of realism, and we accept it without question.
We do the same with swearing. Throw some never-do-wells together, and have them talk about cutting throats and stealing coinpurses, and your reader will imagine the sort of people who might well swear every other word. If you actually do this, your text may come across as boring and a little tasteless. Slip the odd “shit” in there, and the reader will get just enough of a hint of the character of these individuals to accept the dialogue as authentic.
What if I don’t want to swear?
If you don’t want to swear, you don’t have to. Seriously, you just don’t.
As a kid, I read 2000 AD comics. In this, they had their own swear-words. Characters would shout “Stomm!” if a laser blast arced past their head. In Judge Dredd, people say “Drokk!” In the magnificent RPG Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, the most popular insult you’ll hear is “Swit!” which actually sounds dirty. In the TV series Firefly, they used Chinese insults. If you want some funnier examples, there’s a Fry and Laurie sketch in which they invent new expletives to avoid censorship, including “Prunk” and “Pim-hole.” They sound filthy, but they’re not. There’s also an episode of King of the Hill in which a character invents his own swear-word and gets in trouble with his teachers when he is confronted with something that displeases him and declares, “this womps!”
Now, if you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction, there’s no reason why you can’t invent your own swear-words. You don’t even have to explain what they mean. If you’re clever, you can come up with something that sounds offensive (“swit” is just brilliant; you could start a fight in a pub calling someone that, even if they don’t get it). So go ahead, be creative. Then you can swear all you like, and people will think you’re a genius, too.
To conclude, these days swearing is fine, unless you’re writing for kids. It can help to sharpen the jagged edge of a gritty scene, or convey authenticity and character. But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. And if you want to include swearing, but without actually swearing, that is also possible.
As with everything, whatever we do, we should it for a reason, and do it in a way that makes sense.
Thanks for reading, and keep fucking writing,
*The Big Lewbowski is also one of my favourite films. As I’m sure many of you will remember, The Dude’s deadly-serious response to this question, is “what the fuck you talking about?”