A dry erase board with a partially erased F word in blue marker

When The F* Should My Character Cuss?

Insecure Writer's Support Group Logo

As part of this month’s Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop, I’m going to skip the general discussion regarding NaNoWriMo experiences. I’ve posted some tips and recommendations about making your NaNo experience successful here:

Instead, I’d like to focus on the some key considerations for authors, before including cussing in a character’s dialogue. (Not exactly related to the IWSG topic, except by the end of my last NaNoWriMo, not only was I cussing, but so were my characters).

Obviously, a lot of thought goes into writing a character’s personality and traits: their looks, their hang ups, position in life, and even how they speak. When it comes to dialogue, you’re readers will expect a character to sound realistic:

  • Your MG character probably isn’t using multisyllabic scientific phrases (unless you count Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time),
  • An elderly lady isn’t likely to be using new hip phrases,
  • But… a seasoned fisherman is going to cuss like a sailor, when a hook pierces his finger.

And that’s where things can get a bit tricky.

What’s the definition of “cuss”?

Angry cartoon character in black and white shaking his fist in the air and with a dialogue bubble filled with symbols connoting cuss words

“Cussing” or “swearing” have become general terms for offensive words or phrases. They’re also referred to as “4-letter words,” “potty mouth,” “dirty words,” “bad language,” and numerous other synonyms. The words themselves can vary between generations, cultures, and countries.

Types of offensive words

A wide range of offensive vocabulary exists and can be subdivided into these broad categories:

  • Profanity- using language considered profane, as defined often within religiouns, as in “Oh God, shut up.”
  • Cursing- demanding a deity punish or harm someone or something, as in “Damn you!”
  • Vulgarity- use of very crude words, refering to crude actions or behaviors, as in “Oh, sh*t!”
  • Obscenity- words that describe something considered morally disgusting, as in “F@#k you!”
  • Swearing- using an oath, as in “I swear to God…”

If you want to delve into these categories further, Elizabeth Sims does a great job parsing them out in How to Use Profanity and Other Raw Talk in Your Fiction.

Hasn’t cussing just become the norm?

Cussing has become almost ubiquitous in many parts of society. Language considered highly inappropriate a generation ago has become commonplace. That, however, doesn’t mean cuss words are appropriate or accepted in every circumstance or culture. In some parts of society or cultures, certain swear words are even considered blashpemous. When it comes to storytelling, writer’s should make well thought-out decisions about their word choice when it comes to dialogue that includes expletives.

How to decide if your character should cuss:

There are several things to consider before penning those colorful words, including:

Creating a realistic character

Humans mirror anger in their speech and word choice. Often in these cases, typical words just won’t do and an escalation in loudness and word choice simultaneously occur, resulting in a cussing, angry person. Other characters, though, may realistically reflect their anger by becoming flustered, crying, or withdrawing (responses, of course, cultivated by their backstory). The question to answer for yourself is: would this character really say this word?

Sometimes, a cuss word that’s completely out of character can be quite funny, catching the other characters (and your readers) off guard. The mousy kitchen maid who has had quite enough of her bossy head cook may delight your readers when she sneaks around a corner, lights a cigarette, and punctuates her grumble with “ya’ b*tch!”

Another consideration is the historical setting of your story. What would have been acceptable speech at that time? What contemporary cuss words existed?

Consistent with the magnitude of action or tension in the scene

Adding swearing to dialogue should parallel the vibe of the scene. In a high-stakes chase scene, swear words may be an appropriate choice. I mean, what would a car chase with Dominic Toretto (Fast and Furious) be without a few F-bombs? Those same words may feel out of place, say, if a dainty character breaks a freshly-painted nail (unless she’s breaks it driving one of those cars in that high-stakes chase scene).

Development of a unique character voice

Character’s can be associated with a particular cuss word or phrase. Many my age will recall Robin (Batman series) whose iconic phrase is “Holy (insert current topic here), Batman.” For example, if an evil villain bit Batman, Robin would have said, “Holy molars, Batman!” In the T.V. series Supernatural, Dean’s favorite phrase under stress is, “Son of a bitch!” Entertainment Weekly published a list of a few other characters known for their colorful language.

Impact on you as an author

The last several months have seen me working on the copyedit of The Grim Reader and opining over some word choices recommended to truly make my characters realistic. Specifically, it meant having to consider using F-bombs. It’s True—my sample scenarios of characters smoking weed are more likely to sound realistic if they say “That’s some really dank shit” or “F* yeah, that good shit.”

And I really, really struggled with that.

It’s not my personal choice of phrasing. I understand needing to show characters in their true life, but also realized there were several other considerations, before making a final word choice.

How to apply cussing:

  • When
    • Cussing included in dialogue should fit the character and the scene. Or, at least, if the language is out of place the other characters should notice.
    • Don’t just add swear words to sell books. Readers want great stories—they’re not choosing books based on the number of swear words. On the other hand, if a character should have been cussing in a scene, the reader will notice if it’s left out or the dialgoue is purified.
  • Sparingly and impactfully
    • Treat swear words like spice on a great meal: oversalt it, and the meal is ruined.
      • I watched a show last week where one character ranted for an entire scene with almost nothing but F-bombs coming out of her mouth. They were used as expletives, nouns, adjectives, and a few parts of speech I couldn’t even define. I completely lost sense of what the scene was about and turned off the show. I’m not some prim and proper writer, but the use of strong language like that should mean something, should accentuate the scene and the character. This dialogue did neither, leaving me with not only a bad impression of the show, but of the screenwriter.
  • Which words?
    • Not all cuss words are viewed equally or have the same impact. Look for authentic language that fits the character, the scene tension, and your target reader audience. For example, tossing in a reference to female anatomy (“the C-word”) is a much harsher term and less accepted by certain readers than using the word “bitch”.
  • Realistic
    • Emulate the real thing.
      • Don’t try to make your college student sound authentic by throwing a few cuss words into his converstations. If the wording doesn’t ring true with your readers, you’ll take them out of the adventure you so keenly penned. If the dialogue sounds too fake, you may completely lose the reader. For example, “Ohmygoodness!” is probably the wrong choice for a character in your YA gritty dystopian post-apocalyptic world whose being chased by zombies.
      • Listen to real life-conversations to get a flavor for realistic language in your character’s age group.
      • Consider a beta reader that’s in your character’s age group. I found this very helpful in setting up young adult drug scene scenarios in The Grim Reader. Not only did my YA beta reader help my refine my character’s dialogue, but he was able to guide me toward which cuss words would be most realistic.

Additional Considerations:

  • Impact on purchases and readers-balancing the choices:
    • It’s important to consider what restrictions on purchases might occur, if your work includes certain cuss words. Know your reading and purchasing audience. Will parents be likely to buy your F-bomb laden story for their mid-high student? Is your audience religious-based, with a potentially narrower range of acceptable language.
    • Balancing the choices may not be as easy as it sounds. For example, in my case, I hope The Grim Reader is not only used by writers, but also by parents trying to learn how to more about the risks and tell-tale signs of teen drug use and abuse. With drug use increasingly occuring in children as young as 4th or 5th grade, I need to consider how my language choice will impact that parent-reader. At the same time, I need to offer authors realistic sample scenarios. It’s not realistic to sugar-coat the language used by a heroin addict on a street corner looking for another fix, but I can temper the language of a psychedelic parenting mom or a pot-smoking teen.
  • Creative Cussing
    • Want the impact of cussing without the worry of getting censored? Consider made-up words or using double-entendre. Sound silly? It worked for Disney and James Dashner (The Maze Runner).
    • Think way out of the box: this genre-bending bedtime story collection started as a joke for a tired father, and resulted in a tongue-in-cheek, heavily “seasoned” booklet for tired parents.
  • Just frickin’ cuss, already:
    • If this is the style you are going for, you’ll see you’re not alone. Check out:

What about you?

How do you decide when to include cussing in your dialogue or writing? What barriers has the decision created for you, if any?

Meet other writers-blog hop link:

Other IWSG authors willing to share ideas and offer support along this writing journey can be found at the blog hop links (below). Many thanks to this month’s co-hosts: PJ Colando, Jean Davis, Lisa Buie Collard, and Diedre Knight!

Happy Friggin’ Writing!

5 Comments

  1. I use cussing sparingly in my books. I want teens to be able to read them. (Not that they aren’t hearing far worse elsewhere, but their parents won’t flip out finding major cussing in one of their books.)
    I remember a movie where the English girl working for a politician was sweet up until she opened her mouth and spewed profanity. It just seemed so out of place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *