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.