My Character Said

Recently, I’ve been following with interest a discussion thread on one of my LinkedIn ™ writers’ groups regarding the use of profanity in fiction; primarily in regard to the ‘F’ word. Opinions varied, with some writers being very liberal in their use of this and other expletives and others being totally bummed out by it.

As I do at cocktail parties, I seldom join in the conversation unless I have something really interesting or useful to say; preferring to hear what others have on their minds. Whether it’s my day job or writing, I often get some of my best ideas from the conversations I overhear. This one was really interesting, though, for the intense emotions it generated, and it got me thinking about my own views on the use of profanity in my fiction, something I hadn’t given a lot of thought to before.

I write non-fiction and fiction in multiple genres, and upon reflection on this issue, realized that I did have rules of a sort on ‘potty’ language in my writing that I was applying without consciously thinking too much about it.

In my non-fiction, I only use profanity if it’s a direct quote of someone I’ve interviewed, and then only if it was important to understanding the quote. Bottom line is, I’ve rarely used profanity in any of my non-fiction.

In my historical novel for young adults, Buffalo Soldier: Trial by Fire, even though it’s likely that characters from this period of American history would have been quite profane, and many young people today know and use words that make even me blush, I don’t feel it appropriate to litter the pages with profanity, so I avoid it or use euphemisms.

I also write fantasy; sword and sorcery and what is generally referred to as urban fantasy, such as Wallace in Underland, a parody of Alice in Wonderland, where, again, it might be appropriate for characters to let some blue language fly, but I either avoid it or make up a term. The exception is Angel on His Shoulder, a humorous fantasy about a 40-year-old loser who is visited by the spirit of his dead grandmother. The grandmother is a salty character and does on occasion use mild profanity; but, this book is for adults, so I felt it okay to let granny go off now and then.

In my mystery series about a private detective based in Washington, DC, I have a cast of off-beat characters who are often in situations where the lack of credible speech, including some fairly gritty language, would undermine the credibility of the setting and story. So, on occasion, I have a character even use the F-word, because that’s what you would expect. You can check out Deadline to see what I mean. If that offends some readers, I can only say, don’t go outside if you live in an urban area – folks, that’s the way people talk. I don’t, however, use profanity gratuitously or for shock value. If it would a character would credibly curse in a stretch of dialogue, and it underlines what I’m trying to achieve with that particular passage, it goes in; if not, it doesn’t.

So, there you have it. I do have rules and standards on the use of profanity in writing. The bottom line, I sincerely believe, is like the old army response to ‘what should you do?’: it depends on the situation.