“I hate it when women swear like navvies.” The comment had to do with fictional ‘kick-ass’ heroines, and it got me thinking. Oh, the power of the dreaded F-word. You know the one. Starts with F, rhymes with duck. In my own case, one of my books scored a one star review (would have given it zero) and a major reason appears to have been because the heroine ‘used the F-word’ a lot. Which is absolutely true. She swears when she gets mad. Another writer colleague received a two star review where the reviewer complained about the unnecessary use of the F word. The word appears twice in that novel, both times in context.
Why do we have such an obsession about what is, after all, just a word? And a very versatile word it is, available as a noun, a verb and (with ‘ing’ on the end) an adjective which can be applied to almost anything. Sure, it’s a profanity. I remember, as a tender young thing growing up in an environment where such language was not used, being somewhat taken aback when listening to a gaggle of young lads talking. Every second word began with F. But let’s face it, folks, it’s a very common word. I have become enured to its use through familiarity. If you’re surrounded by people who swear, you learn to ignore it. But I will add that I still shake my head sadly when I hear young people, especially girls, using bad language in loud voices as if that makes them ‘cool’.
Which segues neatly back to the use of swear words in fiction.
I’m not suggesting that the F-word must be used in novels, or even that it should be used a lot. I read a chapter or two of a book set in a rough and tough high school and the constant use of F*** became boring. Yes, that’s how kids talk but, like accents, realism can be overdone. I mentioned (obliquely) that my father didn’t swear (in front of us kids, anyway). Maybe that’s why I recall with startling clarity the only time I heard him say FUCK!! We were down the beach, sorting a catch from a prawning net and Dad pricked his finger on a fish spine. It hurt. A lot. So when Grand Admiral Saahren in The Iron Admiral: Deception uses the F word for the one and only time it makes an impact. The word is intended to signal his feelings of frustration and impotence.
With my ‘kick-ass heroines’ the use of swear words doesn’t signal toughness. It hints at back story, having been around people who swear routinely. Sometimes, it’s a defence mechanism. “I swear, therefore I’m tough.” And sometimes it means “I’m so angry I can’t think of a better word to express my rage.” All of those reasons are perfectly legitimate. Indeed, sometimes leaving out swear words is totally unrealistic. If you’re writing a crime novel involving bikies, for example, let’s face it, folks; they swear. If your dialogue leaves out the profanities, you’ll have a hard time convincing this reader.
I’m also not a fan of word substitution. I write space opera so it’s tempting to try to come up with a new, 23rd century F-word. But at the end of the day, people mentally substitute ‘fracking’, ‘fecking’, ‘frigging’ and so on with good old ‘fucking’, so why bother? And if you come up with something completely different – let’s say ‘bahl’ – you’re going to have to explain it. Maybe put in a footnote, which might read “bahl means the same as fuck”. If you don’t, you’ll throw the reader out of the story while they get their head around the unfamiliar word.
It’s quite interesting to consider what sort of word is profane in different languages. The worst Dutch swears have Christian roots. Goddamn is a serious swear. In English and many other languages, rude words have to do with sex and excretion. Thus we have shit, fuck, bugger and so on. Words like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ are hardly noticed as swear words. And words evolve, their use spreading with familiarity – or maybe as their real meaning is lost. Like ‘bloody’, ‘bugger’ has become a perfectly acceptable soft profanity, despite its original meaning.
For me, swear words have their place. There’s no reason why a writer has to use them in a novel – provided the setting and the characters support that premise. Like adverbs, used sparingly in the right places, they can add to the realism and power of the prose. Personally, I’d rather see a swear word than gratuitous gore or weird sex.
Over to you. What do you think?