…cue in the minstrel and thus ends one of the funniest episodes (‘Beer’) of Britain’s finest ever comedy series, Blackadder.
I’ve got a bit of a swearing problem – not me personally (although I’m still not completely clear of the potty-mouthed tantrum zone) but my writing. When I was writing my tween books it was simple because I knew I needed to avoid swearing of any kind, so even if it felt as if a character would swear in a particular situation I had to find a way around it.
But I’m currently working on a YA novel, where the boundaries are less clear, and I’m finding occasions when there’s no doubt to me that the character would swear. For example in the opening pages my sixteen year-old protagonist is attacked by a shoal of paranormal ‘jawlers’ with demonic yellow eyes and heads full of teeth.
She’s a North London girl living in the twenty-first century, with no previous awareness of paranormal creatures. What’s her reaction going to be when she first sees these terrifying monsters?
“…Crikey?” “…Gosh?” “…Jeepers?”
Of course not – she’s being attacked by a hoard of demonic creatures. If this was real life the first word to leave her mouth would be a resounding F***!
Which leads me to my problem. For me it’s not simply what a publisher or a reader would accept in a YA novel but more that I don’t want to swear in my writing. My protagonists are sixteen year-olds. I’m not completely naive, I know when I’m not looking they’re probably getting drunk on alcopops or smoking dubious-smelling ‘herbs’ they picked up from some dodgy bloke in Camden, but does that mean I have to condone it in my storytelling? The same would probably be true even if I was writing for an adult audience where swearing is less contentious.
So for me there are three issues here:
1. The sense of moral responsibility I feel in writing for a YA audience where it’s possible that younger readers will also read it;
2. An innate prudism (not a word, but you get my meaning!) where I feel that just because swearing is so prevalent in popular culture it doesn’t mean I have to endorse or perpetuate it;
3. A personal preference. I do swear sometimes when I’m angry, but I don’t like it when I do it and I certainly don’t want to do it in my writing.
It’s probably the third point that has the biggest question mark for me because I’m clearly allowing my personal biases to have more sway over my characters than their own personalities. So here I am with the challenge of trying to create convincing dialogue that sometimes goes slightly against what I feel the character would say.
I’ve seen different writers deal with it in different ways. More sanitised versions of swear words can work quite well (although my London characters would never say something like ‘freakin’) and some writers just go with the swear word, which I don’t have a problem with reading. I recently read a book where the writer seemed to deal with this issue by creating a private joke for her protagonist to say “bleep” in place of a swear word, but that didn’t quite work for me (although it may not have been intended as a deliberate mechanism to avoid swearing). For me I tend to just re-work the sentence to avoid it, or say, ‘I swore’ in the first person narrative rather than saying the actual word.
Have you encountered this problem and come up with any ways of dealing with it? Have you read any books where the omission of swearing has felt too contrived? Are there words on the cusp of swearing that are acceptable to use?
And to conclude, another magic moment from that same Blackadder episode quoted in the post title. We always sing this to the little people in my family (not my sister Little Jo of course – she’s one of the lead vocalists). Best goblin voices at the ready, to the tune of the first two lines of incy-wincey spider:
See the little goblin, see his little feet.
And his little nosey-wose, isn’t the goblin sweet.
(I’m not sure if that’s at all funny to non-Panayiotous – to be honest, the little people are often quite bemused by it too!)