Profanity in Novels: The Power and the Overuse of Curse Words

Writers and readers have long debated the use of profanity in fiction.

More and more often these days writers are employing the profuse use of curse words in their works. It’s becoming effing distracting. Do you know what I’m effing talking about?

68% of adult novel authors labor under the belief that the more times they employ the f-bomb and the R version of ‘crap’ the more realistic their fictional world will appear. They are especially fond of dropping these expletives in dialogue. It’s as if they think having their thirty-something character swearing every fifth word that they are appealing to you the reader, as if you will suspend all disbelief—no matter how alien the world—so long as the MC calls his truck his ‘effing’ a—hole of a Ford pickup.

Unfortunately, this attempt at realism is not only vulgar, it is immature.

It is also lazy.

Many wise writers, like Scott Westerfeld and Dan Abnett, know that crafting their own foul language is both more original and less offensive.

Dropping invectives in every line of dialogue (and thought) is the lazy writers’ method of feigning reality. It’s effing forceful in-your-face blatant and I’m tired of this s%*#.

Sure, we all know people who habitually swear. They turn the ‘F’ word into an adverb in every line. I mean, holy s***bags!

But just like these foul-mouthed individuals, vulgar writers mistakenly assume that they are being creative, when in fact they are merely displaying the fact that they lack the vocabulary to properly express themselves. (Which is why I’m going to stop with the ‘bleeped out’ cussing now.)

An even worse literary sin is that this type of juvenile dialogue adds nothing to the story, neither in real life nor in fiction.

It is distracting. It is only distracting.

For example:

I was devouring Scott Hawkins’ incredibly creative world inside The Library at Mt. Char. It was bold, original . . . and then he introduces Steve and Erwin (sound familiar?), and suddenly an original story devolves into yet another display of undeveloped unoriginal writing. For nearly 200 pages we are forced to listen to juvenile male characters refer to everything—from other characters to doors to Janet Evanovich’s books—as ‘effing’ things. A door is a door, Mr. Hawkins, unless it is comprised of mystical runes and you must speak Friend to enter.

Even then, I hardly think Tolkien would ever have called any door an ‘effing’ door, just because he wanted to come across as realistic. He was far more creative and original than that.

These disabused writers might be better served striving to infuse their works with original terminology, rather than falling back on tired expletives and clichéd invectives. Then again, they are best-sellers.

So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m tired of being forced to read words I would never use in my everyday language, words better relegated to the Well of Lost Plots than to the pages of popular works. Young impressionable people read adult novels too, you know; we don’t want them picking up that filth, or being encouraged by best sellers to continue using such foul language.

That being said, an argument might be made for placing the rare curse word in novels.

I believe a well-placed ‘d***it late in a manuscript could go far toward expressing the deep fury of a character. But if that same character has been spitting out foul-mouthed euphemisms for darn and fudge and shoot, then readers will not easily pick up on the crucial importance of the moment when he utters that curse.

It’ll seem just like dozens of other moments throughout the novel, times when he swore passively or with humor or sarcasm or in every other emotion and excuse under the sun.

If our bread and butter are words, then perhaps we ought to respect the power of words. Offensive words lose their power when writers drop them onto every page, when they have their characters spewing them haphazardly. And, just as in real life, in the profusion of swear words, swear words convey nothing. It is the distinct absence and rarity of words that lends them meaning and power.

In summation, the power of profane, vulgar, or licentious words lies not in their frequency or in the reality of their use, but in their rarity in your fiction. It’s like a villain. If you want your baddie to stand out as powerful and intimidating, then don’t have him popping up in every scene or on every page; he’ll just become a nuisance.

Check out Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. He steers clear of all offensive language, instead employing his brand of cursing, which is harmless and often amusing. When you hear the teenage girl Dylan Sharp cursing ‘Barking spiders!’ you give a little grin. It’s creative and shows that, in some books at least, you don’t need your characters sounding like drunken carpenters to make them appealing to your readers.

The Pattern in School Shootings

Be warned: we pull no punches in this article. We write the truth, hard and in your face, with the intention of motivating change.

There seems to be a new school shooting every month now. See how it damages our national identity. See the devastation to our kids and our society. Most importantly, imagine what the families are going through.

Now, if you will, look at these horrific events through the lens of a writer; we begin to see a pattern. On reflection, it is astonishing that lawmakers and media and the survivors haven’t seen—or at least have not recognized—this pattern. Pay attention. This is important.

After every shooting, three inevitable facts ‘come out’:

  1. The shooter or shooters were bullied—by students and sometimes even by teachers
  2. The shooter used his parents or relatives’ gun
  3. The shooter had displayed signs or overtly stated that he would kill before the event

First off, let’s examine this bullying epidemic.

Like every other demographic (except for the very old), teens can be very cruel. But teens tend to receive this negative treatment in heightened straits, that is, they respond more severely, because of all the hormones and peer pressure–and immaturity. This unfortunate situation is compounded by the fact that they don’t really have anyone to turn to, especially when teachers are among the bullies, or are already aware of the bullying and fail to intervene.

So, we have a damaged psyche being exposed to continual abuse or neglect at least five days a week.

Add to this the convenience of guns.

Don’t even start in on the Second Amendment, because that’s not where we’re going with this.

Many parents own guns, as is their constitutional right. The issue is not ownership but access by their unstable, hurting, angry teenager.

Now we have a hurting, vengeful teen with access to assault weapons (that’s what semi-automatics are—weapons—so don’t whine about the wording; you don’t need semi-automatics to hunt deer).

At this point tragedy is still avoidable, if only the teen can and is willing to turn to a mature adult who is both trained to handle burgeoning rage and empathic enough to recognize the signs and deter them before it is too late.

Unfortunately such a person does not exist within school confines. In many cases at least, it would seem that guidance councilors are not doing their job.

Now this angry teen with convenient access to guns lashes out one day. He threatens to kill other students. Either he makes this statement in a half-joking manner or he overtly states that he wants to do it. In any case, other students hear this blatant warning sign. They ignore it. Maybe they are too scared to tell someone, or perhaps they feel there is no one to tell. The result is that they have now become accessory before the fact. Perhaps they are even liable under the term ‘accomplice liability’ for failing to report knowledge of a threat.

The simple hard truth is that: Continue reading “The Pattern in School Shootings”

The Best Books Take You Away From Hard Times

As Dickens would say, ‘It was the worst of times.’

When real life gets tough, when it seems every phone call is more bad news, you need something to take your mind off of crap, something vivid and entertaining, engrossing and imaginative. You know what I’m talking about.

Now, there are options: You could take a trip, but your problems might just follow you; you could play board games or tennis, but forty minutes of the former will make you bored and forty minutes of the latter will give you tennis elbow.

You could even watch movies, which is great for a break from reality. But after two hours, it’s over, and the actors and set pieces never really engaged your imagination. They were like a Monet painting, nice to look at, but devoid of personal engagement.

Books, my dear Watson, are the perfect remedy. Well-written novels force you to imagine what you are reading. You brain transforms text into images and living scenes for you alone. An author writes about events on a windy desolate beach, and you are instantly transported to the Outer Banks, your problems and sufferings a thousand miles behind you. (The best part is that the trip cost you no more than the price of the book.)

Some books you enjoy but then never really give them a second thought.

Others are rare gems. You know the ones—those wonderful books that transport you to another world, or to a different, better one than this one(because it’s about other people’s problems), and which you so loved that it earns an eternal place of honor in your readers’ memory. Such winners might even merit a second or third reading. I want to provide my personal list of these types of favorites. Perhaps you’ve read some of them yourself and enjoyed their gift of: lifting you out of your no good very bad terrible day. Maybe there are a few titles you have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing. If that’s the case, go ahead and pick them up. They might just take you to new worlds and times, and lift your flagging spirits.

I believe in the power of books to engage our minds and to bring us joy and peace in the hard times—as well as in the good times. I trust these titles can do this for you:

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
  • Abhorsen Trilogy
  • Harry Potter series (naturally)
  • Song of Ice and Fire (AKA Game of Thrones)
  • Gaunt’s Ghosts (Dan Abnett’s brilliant Military Sci-Fi series)
  • The Dragonbone Chair
  • Christ Clone Trilogy (makes the Left Behind series look amateurish)
  • Dresden Files (just good plain fun)
  • Codex Alera (because only Butcher can combine the Lost Roman Legion with Pokeman on a dare and create intelligent entertainment)
  • Almost anything by Brandon Sanderson
  • Fablehaven
  • Leviathan Series (Scott Westerfeld)

Not surprisingly, only one title represents a stand-alone book in this list. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might just be my all time favorite fantasy. Yes, it starts out slowly—like The Dragonbone Chair—but this is intentional and intelligently handled. Reading it is like watching an old-school fuse light and chase, growing ever closer to the explosive finale; tension and excitement build with every page.

You get lost in 1820’s England and in the disturbing fantastical realm of Fairie. And that’s the point, isn’t it? To lose yourself in the fabricated worlds of great writers.

Which beggars a question crucial to all writers: What makes these books and their ilk so dang engrossing?

Well, a number of factors lead to their superior quality and desirability, making them books you continue to think about long after you close the cover.

For me, the most obvious reason for their engrossing nature is to be found in the fact that they were clearly crafted with care after long developmental stages by their creators. George R.R. Martin spent months creating just the back-story for each of his 7 Houses of Westeros.


Then there’s the personalized touch. James BeauSigneur, who wrote the Christ Clone books, is a former intelligence analyst for the NSA. Clearly he employed his experiences and unique perspective to write intelligent apocalyptic thrillers.

Another factor is that these authors all understand the importance (and are not afraid of the risk) of taking their time to develop their worlds and characters. Every book and series in my list becomes more absorbing the deeper you dive into their fictional worlds.

So dive into some deep adventures in reading and don’t be afraid to learn from them and to use whatever unique perspective and strength you have to craft your own engrossing tales. Reading and writing are, after all, both excellent methods of turning your no good very bad days into your best life now.