swear word  What is your favorite curse word?  For anyone who has watched Inside the Actor’s Studio, you know this is one of the 10 questions James Lipton asks each actor.  The host was inspired by Bernard Pivot, who hosted the French broadcast Apostrophes, and used the Proust Questionnaire as an opportunity for a writer to reveal his/her personality at that same time as aspects of his/her work.

Swearing and cursing exist in all human languages.  As writers, it’s a tool that can be used to convey a personality trait, like the coarseness of a character.  Or to shock our readers when a character unexpectedly lets loose with strong profanity.  Or humor when a small child mimics an adult using a curse word.   Or to reflect a historical period by choosing an appropriate profanity.

angry man        These words have been around as long as language and researchers have found correlations between the power of strong language and the regions in our brain that relate to emotions but also to intellect, reason and planning.  We use these as part of everyday speech and yet, we still have watchdogs that scrutinize the use of “bad language” on television and radio.  In writing, the genre may dictate in some ways how a character  verbalizes anger or hurt. The protagonist in a cozy is likely to only use the “softer” foul words.  A hardened criminal’s vocabulary is generally more colorful and expletive.  I think as writers we generally know (or are thinking about) what dramatic effect we are trying to achieve in the scene but I wonder if we also stop to think about how that relates to the response a reader might have at the same time.  Are they so interrelated that if we handle the first part with skill, we don’t need to consider the second part of that equation?

Like everything in language, curse words also change over time.  So, I wondered, how much time do you spend thinking about which curse words your characters use?  Do your characters have a favorite curse word (or two or three)?  Do you create words or play with what your characters might say if current swear words are not appropriate for the genre?   And what do you think the choices we each make as writers say about ourselves, if anything?

4 thoughts on “**##&&!!

  1. I do let my characters have their own favorite swear words and I play with one character who is trying to break the habit of cursing to please his wife (who has a “swear jar”). But I have a problem sometimes with drawing the line. My WIP involves gangs. I don’t like loading my dialogue with a lot of F-bombs but anything less seems out of character.

  2. Thanks for stopping by. I love the idea of a swear jar. Its at once serious and yet I am guessing there’s humor with that.

    Balance is always difficult and I can see where a WIP with gangs would be a challenge. There is fine line between being realistic as far as the character and having enough of the foul language so that the reader understands that’s part of the character, without having to use those words in so many lines of dialogue.

  3. Hi, Carolyn,

    This is an important consideration. I’ve created characters that use profanity and those that don’t. It depends on the characterization involved and also the type of mystery I happen to be writing. With my Kim Reynolds series written for Five Star/Gale, initially only one of the detectives uses much profane language. It’s in character for her. But this is a romantic mystery series not a hard-boiled detective or noire type. In general, I’m not comfortable using much profanity.

  4. Because I write cozies, I only use mild cuss words, but I do use them although I know some people don’t even want to read those in a book. Even if wrote something other than cozies I’d have a hard time using the F bomb. Put it down to an age factor. I still hate hearing that word even though it’s become quite common.

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