Using Swearing in Fiction (Warning. Contains Actual Swearing)

Swearing is a natural human expression of anger, disapproval, humour and emotion. Using it in fiction is often down to personal preference but here are some things to consider if you do use swearing.

1. Character 

Swearing can reflect character in many ways. Someone more conservative and polite may be less inclined to swear while someone more rebellious who wants to at least appear to not care about what others think maybe more inclined to swear more frequently. Incidentally swearing can reflect someone acting out of character. If the character type who usually never swears suddenly uses a swear word you know that they are being effected by the situation enough to show another side of themselves.

2. Audience Tolerance 

Swearing for me is not that offensive but is appropriate to circumstances and isn’t always polite. For many others though swearing is really offensive. Why does this matter to you as a writer? Well that means you audience is made up of people with different levels of tolerance to swearing. You may be okay with offending some people. You may even think that’s good and that’s your choice but if you do swear excessively in your writing some people will turn away from reading so it may help to be aware of that fact. Having said that, of course you have no idea just what your readers may take offense to that you don’t and writers do have to accept to some extent that there are always people you might offend even if you try not to.

3. Tone/Realism

Swearing brings with it a certain tone. If you use swearing in the right situations it can work well in your writing. Situations with heightened danger, anger, frustration or fear can go naturally with using swearing. In fact I feel (for me at least) that sometimes not using a swearword occassionally in fiction is not that realistic especially in scenes where a character is angry or in danger. Consider these examples:

Example 1. 

He pointed the gun at her head.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Shut up. Darn it. Shut up!”

Example 2

He pointed the gun at her head.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Shut up. Shut the fuck up!”

Example 3

He pointed the gun at her head.
“Fuck! You don’t have to do this.”
“Shut up. Shut up!”

While the first example sounds very tame for someone in a desperate situation, the second example emphasises the intensity of the gunman’s emotion creating the image of a someone desperate. The third one, however, focusses on the emotion of the victim and the intensity of the situation. Each time a swear word is used here it is minimal but for effect and to portray something about the situation. The swearing used is not random or excessive but provides more information to the reader which brings me to my next point…

4. Frequency of use

The amount you swear in your writing is unique to you as a writer as it reflects your voice as well as your characters voice but it you underuse swearing no one really notices that much. However if you overuse swearing it dominates the text to such an extent that it often overshadows everything else you are trying to express. Some scenes may work with more swearing especially if extreme rage is involved but here’s what it reads like in excess:

Example 4

He walked through the fucking door and pointed the bastard gun right at her fucking head.
“Fuck. You don’t have to fucking do this!”
“Fucking shut up. Shut the fuck up!”

The previous example were much more subtle and conveyed more with less swearing. The last example is overkill and all of the action and emotion is lost to the tone of the constant swearing. This is why, in general, swearing is best used minimally and for specific effect and for character respresentation. There’s nothing wrong with swearing or not swearing but I would err on the side of caution when using swearing because too much is always worse than too little as it dominates too much. Personally, I use it sparingly for realism and 99% of my writing doesn’t use it but if you’re writing a gritty prison-based drama novel it would probably be unrealistic to avoid it altogether. So my main advice in using swear words is caution and to consider the situations in which you use it and what would be the most realistic, particularly in speech. What would the character actually say if a gun was pointed at their head? Would they stay quiet? Would they get angry and swear? How would the gunman actually talk given what his situation was and reasons for doing it. Stay true to what you are trying to portray and the use of swearing is much easier to gauge.

Links (May be available UK only) (Steven Pinker on swearing)


3 thoughts on “Using Swearing in Fiction (Warning. Contains Actual Swearing)

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