“Luck! Sounds almost exactly like ‘fu-..”

by limebirdsally

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!)

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31 Comments to ““Luck! Sounds almost exactly like ‘fu-..””

  1. I do see the problem – but think we should be true to our characters. There are words I wouldn’t dream of using, but sometimes they are the only words my characters would use, so I apologise to my prudish self and write them. Any other course feels dishonest.

    And – young people hear these words all the time, not just in the streets but on film, on TV, on YouTube. They might feel powerful to us, but for many young people they have lost all meaning and are simply an effective sound (all those satisfying hard consonants!)

  2. Hmm, that is a tricky one and I see where you’re coming from. In my Nano book, I had the same problem in that my protagonists went from primary school to around 19 years old. Mine was YA, and I think I had s**t, bloody and bugger a few times. I think the second two are used more often in the UK and I don’t see them as too much. I think some of the harsher swear words I would only use if it really fit. I also have sometimes used ‘flipping’ cause I use that myself!

    Like you said, there’s no chance a 16 year old wouldn’t swear when coming across a huge monster or something, but I guess it’s just thinking how young of a reader you might have.

    Great post Sally! Really got me thinking.

    • Thank you, Beth. The cultural difference is a really interesting point. I’ve recently started exchanging with a critique partner in the States (she’s been great, really useful so far, so I’d definitely recommend that anyone does this) and it really made me stop and think when she mentioned that she thought my character was a boy at first because the phrase ‘pissed off’ sounded crass! I didn’t even think that was remotely close to the edge, but reading back it does sound much angrier than the way I intended it.

      It made me realise that swear words (or even just colloquial phrases) that sound everyday and light-humoured in daily verbal use, can come out sounding much harder when written down so unless your style is more towards the Chuck Palahnuik scale than Austen, it’s probably worth using them sparingly!

  3. Intriguing post, Sally. It makes me think of the time I let my mother read one of the early drafts to a novel I wrote when I was in college. She mentioned how turned off she was by all the swear words I used. Immediately I decided middle-aged people were NOT my audience. :) My characters were in their early 20s, so the genre was not YA and therefore swearing would be not only acceptable but also expected from my readership.

    Last year I edited a novel where the female characters who were best friends called each other very derogatory words (nicknames for female genital parts, for example–sna..h). As a reader I was shocked, but not because the author decided to write such language. Rather, I found it impossible to believe that friends would actually call each other such insulting words! Certainly when I was in high school, college and throughout my 20’s I never once called any of my friends names like that! Goofball was probably the worst nickname I used. :)

    When I brought it to the author’s attention, she said that in her real life, she and her friends call each other these words all the time and were meant to be funny and lighthearted–no insulting intended.

    Okay, I guess. But this is where I come from. Even though the characters might do it based on cultural or gender or age expectations, I was taken out of the story because I personally couldn’t believe it. I needed some sort of narrative support or history between these characters. Then I would have been okay because there would have been a solid reason, offensive or not.

  4. Thank you for commenting, Kate. Ha-ha, poor you! Your mother is one person who is not going to be able to separate your writing from the fact you wrote it.

    I watched ‘In Bruges’ at the weekend and although it was a good film, the constant swearing really annoyed me and actually felt really childish. In ‘Shaun of the Dead’, however, there’s a bit where Simon Pegg is in the pub and says, “Now can I get any of you c***s a drink,” which is hysterical! I think it’s because it is so inappropriate to call your friends that, but mainly because it’s just done once rather than continually like a small child repeating a naughty action because it got a reaction the first time, which is how repeated swearing can sometimes feel.

    Maybe I’m just getting old!

  5. I think Fiddlesticks is an acceptable replacement. It’s a word I’d like to see brought back to popularity.

  6. I don’t tend to cuss like a sailor, but I have a friend who would disagree, especially when he reads my work. Even more so when he reads what he writes when I’m angry. My characters tend to be on very lenient terms with word use. This doesn’t bother me at all and I think it comes from some YA novels I read as a very young girl. I can’t remember their title anyone… I think one was Tithe… anyway, it wouldn’t bother someone like me at all to see your character say “F”.

    I understand your moral dilemma though. You have to let your character have their personality, but you also have to stay in your comfort zone. You can’t write something you would feel uncomfortable with, or feel like you aren’t proud of later. Not all teens cuss. I don’t cuss around some friends. I don’t always say “F” either. I think “Sh**” is a bit less… rough, if that makes sense, and say it more freely.

    I thought I read all the comments and I just peered up and caught a sentence I missed in one of your replies. I don’t necessarily think it’s childish. Or maybe it’s therapy for me. :) When I’m so mad, I take it out in my voices for already cuss (which I’m restating for effect). I guess I just think it’s ok. It’s also ok that you don’t think it’s ok. I suppose it also depends on how it’s done. Or maybe everyone hates how I do it and just hasn’t said anything, other than my friend who hates that I cuss at all. :D

    I remember in one zombie story I wrote that basically had a a flavored word for every other, he said it shouldn’t be posted on the blog. Of course I did it anyway. Then I felt guilty for a week. “Will people hate it? WHAT WILL THEY THINK?”

    Ok, here’s main ramble point: Do what you think is best for you. Your personality is going to come through anyway. You should at least let it carry you in a way that fits your morals. :)

    • It’s funny isn’t it – I doubt readers are going to have a problem with it, particularly not in the target market I’m writing for, and I know I don’t have a problem reading it in other people’s writing, but I still hold back.

      Believe me, I know how to turn the air blue. I hate cooking and yesterday I spent over 45 minutes peeling, cutting, steaming and pulping a batch of apples for my baby only for my husband to stick a wooden spoon in the blender and ruin the whole lot with a load of splinters. The word ‘blast’ did not cut it.

      But thank you so much for the comment and the advice. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do – get the personality of the characters across in my own style, and the unspoken fact they probably do swear, without actually saying it.

      That said, to me as a Brit when you describe it as “cussing” that just sounds cute!

  7. I think as long as it’s used where it’s appropriate for the character and not just for the sake of it – it can be just the word you need, to express just how extreme an emotion or reaction is. Personally I find it a bit weird when authors censor themselves – why write it in the first place if you can’t see it in your book? I must admit I’ve a bit of a potty mouth too so that would colour my opinion – my friends and I call each other terrible things because.. well, just because, and also because we’re really 14-year-old boys inside.

    • Ha-ha, good advice, thank you (although I’ll probably not start calling my friends terrible things!) – I’m getting a general feel that I should probably chill out about it and just let the words come naturally.

  8. At one point, I was told that one should *never ever* use cuss words. EVER. This was, btw, on a scifi/fantasy critquing forum where I was told that I need to warn people if my writing had swear words in it, because many would be offended.

    REALLY? In scifi and fantasy? Seriously?

    So I embarked on a quest to eliminate all cusswords from my literary vocabulary. It was very difficult for me. I tried, for a bit, to use fewer actual swear words and more injections that would only be considered swearing in particular parts of the world. It just never felt right. Not because i swear day in-day out, but because there are, as you’ve said, just places where a cuss word is necessary…and there are also characters who would curse themselves blue in the face for no reason at all.

    I’ve been editing the manuscript anyway, so I’ve been fixing this where necessary. The truly metropolitan, urban “kids” are using real swear words a little more often than necessary, the adults rarely but as necessary…and the sheltered, protected girl is using the “wooden swears,” The first time she uses an actual cuss word will be an indication of a changing point in the story and her character. Cuss words are like salt. Too much and all you’ll want is a drink, not enough and the whole thing just seems bland.

    • Hi there, nice to hear from you. You know that actually rings a faint bell deep inside my memory somewhere – I wonder if I’ve been told I should never swear in my writing in the past at it’s stayed with me.

      I really like the way you’re dealing with it in your novel by keeping it true to what your characters would say and building up to the swear word in a way that heightens the dramatic tension. I can’t wait until you’ve got it in a state where you’re ready to share it!

  9. My one and only cuss word is Sh-ee-it. My grandmother said I could remain a lady if I pronounced the manure word with more than one syllable. Lately, in front of my grandchildren, I’ve been trying to say Dookie, dookie, dookie instead. But the S word still comes out in times of stress, like when I spill hot coffee on my computer, or my daughter’s great dane steps on my toe. Have a great day to go with your great and fun blog.

  10. Hi Pat, lovely of you to comment again. When I’m in control I tend to use ‘blast’, and I was very proud of using the word ‘twerp’ to tell my husband what I thought about him waking me up early the other morning. Occasionally I’ll start with the Shhhhhhhhh and just let it fade out, but when I’m really angry sadly there’s less control! Having a baby gives me a strong incentive for trying to keep it clean though.

    The photos on your website are amazing – makes me want to jump into a scooby doo camper van and do a road trip across the States!

  11. My novels are geared towards adults, but I still don’t want to use many “swear” words. (I use them personally more than I should….) And I don’t want to drop “the f-bomb” in the books. But, yes, that’s sometimes what a character really means. I’ve gotten around it by having them, if necessary, say, “What the—”

    Most people will fill that in with the same word! But those of a “gentler” nature could imagine “heck” or “hey” or some other less loaded term. Just a possible suggestion.

    • Hi there, thank you for commenting. It’s actually a really interesting notion that people will fill the gaps – people are going to relate to characters in different ways anyway depending on their own background so actually it could well be the case that just as in my mind the character’s dropping the f-bomb (love that phrase by the way, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Adam&Joe who had a radio show, but I picked that up from them!), in a reader’s mind it could be exactly the same character saying ‘heck’ without diluting the sentiment.

  12. I can see feeling that way too. In the last Harry Potter novel Ron says bloody hell, and damn a few times. And I think Hermione has to stop him from cussing from time to time. Maybe you can put your characters with a prude who stops all words. They start to say Sh… then get the look LOL.

    I don’t have a problem with cuss words, because I cuss like a sailor. but at the same time I WILL NEVER offend someone (I try to keep cussing on my blog to a minimum) So I can see not wanting to swear in any material that might offend people. But I think the YA audience can take it to an extent. I’m reading a YA book now where the protagonist is constantly talking about how .. ahem… ready to “get it on” .. he is, and heck in the Twilight books there was all sorts of sexual connotations. I know sex isn’t the same as cussing, but they sort of follow along the same lines in terms of offending folks.

    I think I woudln’t worry too awful much about it, in order to make the characters sound believable. Besides, the best books there are are the banned ones!

    • Hi Laura. Actually I do remember the first time Ron said, “Bloody hell Harry,” in one of the Potters and I thought it sounded really authentic. I was glad they put that in. It’s probably one of those less-is-more situations where if they were doing it all the time it would get boring, but the occasional word here and there makes them feel a lot more human.

      I really like the idea of having a character who encourages them to swear less as a mechanism for toning it down – I do actually have a character within the friendship group who’d be ideal for that. I might have a little think on that one!

      Thanks very much for commenting.

  13. Well…on a lark, I went to the website for the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and thesaurus. I looked up some naughty words (including the F-bomb). Guess what? They were all in there. Yet, they did describe the words as being vulgar or obscene. D’oh! What really got me wondering was that they, “M-W”, had a sound-byte .wav file to let you know how it’s to be spoken! WOW!

    My take on all this, is that all words are fair game. It’s the character that is involved in the dialogue, not the writer. Yet, if there is a problem with writing such words…maybe the saying, “Show, don’t tell” might suffice. I don’t mean acting out the naughty word. :O BTW, I’m a veteran of the US Army for 9 years, during peacetime and war, and have a colourful way of expressing myself. :P

    • Ha-ha, if you go into urban dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com/) you’ll find that even the most innocent of phrases seem to have some kind of filthy meaning! Maybe the rule is once a word’s accepted in a credible dictionary it’s far too mainstream to be a real cuss – so the second dilemma is are the swear words I’m using even current vernacular or a generation away from the POV of the narrative!

  14. Thank you, Sally, for being concerned about your young readers. As one who works with elementary school students, I’m grateful. I also do not want to use these words in my writing for similar reasons. Instead of dropping the word in my text, I write “cursed” or “swore” and then focus on the reason/reaction. For example, “Then he cursed in a wretched way that made Jewel look down…” and “… and her voice added a few choice words that would have shocked anyone else.” My reader can then fill in the blanks with the swear word of his choice, which may be less crude than another reader’s choice. What about creating a new term or two, owned by your protagonist? Something unique and that shows a bit of her personality? If you have paranormal activity going on, an f-bomb would be, to me, far too ordinary. As many are saying in these comments, “everyone” says these words. I’ll bet you can do better than that and have some fun with it at the same time!

    • I agree. I don’t want to use the F-bomb in my writing. There are SO many other choices of words or presenting a scene without actually using that word.
      The word may be mainstream but not because it’s really okay to use, it’s because we aren’t teaching our kids (or ourselves) better words/better ways to deal with anger. When I’m Seriously screwed that word has been known to come out of my mouth, to my shame; I’m no better than anyone else.

    • That’s a great idea Darla, thank you for the advice. I actually replied to jmgershom above before I read your comment, but I think the same issue stands that my swearing is probably vastly out-dated now anyway, so why not just create some new terms! On a slightly related note I only discovered the word spam (in the sense of internet spam) derives from a Monthy Python sketch. A better example is ‘smeg’ from Red Dwarf – really worked as a substitute for swearing that didn’t sound daft.

  15. I agree that this is a dilemma. Surely we all swear, when pushed (by monsters or otherwise) whether teenager or adult? Shouldn’t our characters then also do so? I think, though, that swear words belong in the category of exclamation marks and sex – they tend to draw attention to themselves. It’s not really about being prudish, but about keeping the reader’s attention in the right place. That is, on the monsters, rather than what expletive the protagonist would use. Jmgershom has a point: this is perhaps Show, don’t tell-territory. Could it also be that swear words should be thought of as cliches? They are certainly well in use. A final thought. There’s a lot that we as readers accept that characters do off stage: eat, comb their hair, go to the toilet – but unless it plays a specific role in the story/scene, it just feels a bit weird to witness it. But again, it really is a dilemma. I think, though, that we rarely miss swearing in a text, but certainly notice it if it seems out of place. Difficult.

    • Ooo, I like the suggestion that perhaps swearing could be seen as a cliche, that’s really got me thinking.

      There was a piercing scream; the gorgeous man set my heart racing and made me go weak at the knees; I ran away as fast as my legs could carry me…I’d steer clear of using phrases like that because they’re used so often, so surely immediately dropping the f-bomb in times of danger could be cliched because it is the obvious reaction.

      Although that does remind me of the time a couple of guys attempted to rob me at a cashpoint – it was a set-up where one guy sitting on the floor got my attention while the other one grabbed my card when it was released. Fortunately he wasn’t quick enough so I managed to grab his arm and my instinctive reaction was to scream at the top of my voice; “Where’s my f***ing card you f***ing c***?” Somebody else pointed out my card on the floor where he’d dropped it and he ran away while I was picking it up, but I guess that’s where cliches come from – they do tend to be a fairly apt response!

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