Friday, December 22, 2017

Do You Let Your Characters Swear?

Do your characters swear? Do they swear too much? Not enough? Should they swear at all?

At the end of January I’m presenting a seminar on dialog and I tackle the question of profanity. It brings to mind a discussion I had with my editor (I’ll call her Nancy) about Murder at the Book Group, #1 in my Hazel Rose Book Group series.

Nancy advised me to ditch my swear words. It's not that I had a lot of them, but I was trying for authentic dialog—people swear, some a little, some a lot, some only when “necessary.” We’ve all known colorful folks who liberally season their conversations with salty words. For example, my character Jeanette Thacker is loosely based on a former co-worker who never felt the need to censor her speech. Not a word of it.   

But Nancy said that my story was a cozy and that cozy readers frown on swearing. And then there was all the sex …

Murder at the Book Group does fit into the cozy mystery genre in that the main character, Hazel Rose, is an amateur detective. But I consider it a dark and edgy cozy, what's sometimes called a traditional mystery. The sex I write about occurs off stage and is all talk—remembered sex, reported sex, observed sex, hoped-for sex.

Nancy maintained that sex and swearing were over the top. And I did want to cultivate loyal  readers who I expect, if given the choice, would pick sex over blue language (I've since found out that the same is true of many of my fellow authors). On the other hand, some wonder why a reader who can't get enough dead bodies on the page would be so appalled by cussing.   

I trusted Nancy’s expertise and instincts. With her help my story was blossoming. And so I ditched the cursing and kept the sex. Not wanting to dilute my more colorful characters, I put my creative side to work and came up with euphemisms (including the “okay” swear words) and other tricky ways to simulate swearing. I was satisfied with the results.

If the real Jeanette Thacker reads my tome and recognizes herself I think she’d be pleased but would probably wonder why she’s using words like “frigging” (that's an okay word).

Mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at suggesting swearing that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”

I had a different editor for my second book, Murder at the Moonshine Inn, and he was more lenient. I remembered my readers, but couldn't resist sprinkling a very mild expletive—or three—into the dialogue. So far no one’s objected.

Back to my dialog presentation. This is how I answer the question “To swear or not to swear?”:
  • Know your reader and your genre. Cursing and four-letter words are more acceptable in a thriller than in a romance or a cozy mystery
  • Refrain from profanity in narrative, but an occasional expletive in dialog is acceptable (depending, of course, on genre)
  • Realize that profanity is more noticeable in a novel than in real-life conversation, so limit its use in your writing
  • Use your best judgment
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Writers Conference


Charles Gramlich said...

I don't write cozy's and my characters do swear. although I try not to have them do it unless it seems necessary

Glen King said...

Frigging good.

Liane Spicer said...

The editor of my first book, which was contemporary romance, removed the one expletive I included, even though it was justified in the context. She also removed the word 'rape' and substituted 'force'. The explicit sex was fine, once I used euphemisms for the 'naughty parts'. You have to abide by the rules of the genre (or sub-genre) or, or of a particular publisher, or risk alienating your readers.

A salty character in my self-published second novel, which is romantic suspense, let fly a few. No one has complained so far... So my answer is yes, my characters curse if cursing is called for. That said, there are certain expletives that I find so offensive I don't think I could ever put them in a character's mouth.

Maggie King said...

So far I think we're in agreement that it's a judgment call. Also, our own comfort level comes into play.

Sharon Aguanno said...

Hi Maggie! When I read your post, I asked myself, “did Maggie’s books have curse words?” So, my answer is, if I don’t remember it, then they certainly weren’t offensive! I agree with you and Liane that sometimes if you want it to seem real, cursing is needed! All about judgement! And of course, while reading a cozy Christnas story, I don’t want to see cursing! Have a wonderful holiday season!

Maggie King said...

Sharon, I think cozies are responsible for giving cursing a bad rap! lol. You have wonderful holiday as well. Be happy, be safe.

Katherine Tomlinson said...

I think it's genre-specific. I used to write a LOT of dark fiction and I wrote one crime story for an anthology that had the editor saying it was "nicely sweary." I also write a lot of fantasy and I have invented curse words for that because, let's face it, FU*K is an Anglo-Saxon word that's been around for a long time but sometimes you don't want to go all George R.R. Martin with your characters. I specifically avoid cursing if it's a cozy. When I lived in Richmond, I had a ladylike vocabulary. (My father didn't even swear in front of the family) but decades in L.A. cured that.

Linda Thorne said...

I honestly like to hear some cuss words in a book, but I don't think it works in a cozy. I ended up with "frigging" and "fudge" for areas that I thought the real word was needed. It's better as frigging and/or fudge as it gets the same idea across without grossing a reader out.
Good post. I enjoyed this.

G.B. Miller said...

While my characters do swear (I write adult fantasy), they swear only if a particular situation calls for it. Otherwise, they speak in the type of creative language that their creator is known for. While it may be easier to get a particular emotion across by dropping the F-bomb or S-bomb or A-bomb for a certain scene, it's a lot more fun to get a particular emotion across using biting wit and sarcasm, as well as colorfully selective adjectives that are not the aforementioned bombs. Except maybe the B word.

Maggie King said...

Thanks for your comments. Katherine, I love the "nicely sweary" compliment. I think there's agreement that swearing (or not) depends on the genre, its use should be limited, and that it's best to use "creative" language---invent our own swear words!

Sasscer Hill said...

I write edgy, close to thriller mysteries, and think the F word dropped into dialog sparingly can be quite effective and appropriate. I also tend to like "effing" more than "frigging." My editor at St. Matins, to date, has never deleted a well placed S or F, but then these words don't show up that often. If I were to write a straight cozy, there would be NO swearing. Well, maybe "damn," but that would be as salty as I'd go in that genre. Like everything else in writing a novel you have to know your readers and give them what they want and expect.

Gloria Getman said...

Interesting. I'm currently reading Harlan Coben's book Don't Let Go. It's not a cozy, but there are no swearing either. The dialogue is so intense, it doesn't need it.

Maggie King said...

Sasscer, according to my "cozy" editor, damn is one of the okay words. Gloria, your comment about Harlan Coben's dialog not needing swearing is interesting and thought-provoking.