On Swearing In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti
Most writers know that written dialogue is not the same as spoken dialogue. We edit out the pauses, repetitions, clumsiness and the rest, all the while trying to achieve an individual character’s ‘voice’. But what if our character swears like a drunken wharfie? What if he or she is angry, semi-literate, stressed, low on self-control and swearing is their default response to setbacks of any sort? Can you have the character say ‘oh gosh’ or ‘shivers’ or – and this is an expression which sets my teeth on edge – ‘Holy crap’ when what they’d really say is a string of profanity?
When The Book of Love was edited I was told they were turning down the heat on the sex scenes because – and this was pre 50 Shades of Grey – the market demographic for the book would be turned off, no pun intended. I kept my mouth shut and did as I was told, as you do when you are starting out. Indeed, I went a step further and deleted all ‘F’ words. Didn’t want to offend readers’ tender ears.
Looking back, I think there really was no need to. I did not allow my heroine to utter such coarse expletives. But I felt that when two young men are angry with each other and about to trade blows NOT using expletives is just silly and false. We no longer live in the day when to call a man a ‘cowardly blackguard’ or a ‘dishonourable cur’ is considered enough of an insult.
To keep a contemporary flavour and texture, I think if the character is one who would swear, then let them swear, but keep it to an absolute minimum. Enough to get a sense of who they are, but not enough to disgust the reader. Although if you’re modelling yourself on Irvine Welsh or Chuck Palahniuk go ahead and knock yourself out.
I have a young relative who, when frustrated at the lack of police action during a late night incident, told the police to f**k off. They charged her with causing offense. The police officer declared he was offended. The judge dismissed the charges eventually and said he found it hard to believe anyone these days was offended by the use of f**k and certainly not a Sydney police officer on patrol in a notorious night spot.
The judge may have found it hard to believe, but I think many people still are offended, do not want to hear such words and do not want them scattered lavishly through the books they read. I swear, you swear, my characters swear, but when I get to the final editing stages, I find a way around using the offending words, or leave only one. But I make sure I use that last one to achieve maximum impact.
Phillipa Fioretti’s author website: www.phillipafioretti.com.au
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