THIS POST WAS BORN of a conversation on On Spec's Facebook page. Someone asked how the editors felt about the 'F' word and those editors responded in detail here. That conversation got me thinking about the use of profanity in fantastic literature. To be clear, I'm not talking about language intended to hurt or marginalize or disrespect. I'm not talking about racial or sexual epithets. I am strictly looking at those words commonly referred to as curse words. I'm talking (mostly) about George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words.
Where to start?
There are no bad words, just words. The bad is in the eye of the beholder. Some people choose to be offended by certain words. They might not understand they're making a choice in being offended, but they are. We all have the option of growing beyond childhood/religious/societal programming and choosing not to be upset by any given word. For some folks it's easy. Others will never achieve this simple freedom. Judging from the behavior I see in rush-hour traffic, I'd say most people are victims to their emotions. He cut me off and made me angry. This is an illusion. Think it over. Next time someone cuts you off in traffic, shrug it away. Maybe you'll arrive at your destination seconds later. So what?
I am, in my roundabout way, making a point. We are writers. Words are our tools. If you want to build a house, there is little to be gained by arbitrarily limiting the types of tools you are willing to use. You don't have to use every single tool each time you build a house, but should you need to reach into the tool box and pull out a fuck, go for it.
Many folks suggest limiting the use of swear words because overuse reduces their shock value. This is correct. Yes, overusing any word will reduce its effectiveness, but I don't think we use naughty words strictly for shock value. Seriously, if you're shocked by the word fuck, you need to grow up. That said, Susan made a good point (we bounced this post back and forth a bit, refining ideas) when she mentioned the possibility of being shocked by a character's use of profanity when you don't see it coming. That's good character writing.
I think their value (to the writer) is in the emotional resonance. Used at the right time and in the right place, profanity can be powerful. It can give a simple sentence a punch in the gut. For example:
Bob was angry.
Bob was fucking angry.
Same meaning in both sentences, but the second—still a very short sentence—carries more weight.
Obviously that's not the only use. Profanity can help differentiate character dialogue: Dave never swears, Gertrude swears all the time. It can also be part of the flavour of your world. If your profanity is religious in nature—rather than sexual or excretory—this tells us something about your world. Cursing in fantastic literature begins with world building. If you're writing a modern fantasy (that takes place in something close to today's society) you can use whatever colourful language makes sense. Overuse will lessen its impact but that's a decision you (and your editor) will have to make.
In historical/medieval fantasy you have a more difficult choice to make. Do you write historically accurate language and risk alienating/confusing/educating readers? Or should you use modern language and risk sounding like you haven't done your research? Is there a comfortable middle-ground? That, I suspect depends on your reader. Not being a huge fan of historical literature, I am less likely to notice anachronisms than someone well-versed in the genre.
Secondary world fantasy—that taking place in a wholly fabricated world—offers its own challenges. Using modern words can throw the reader out of the story, but entirely made up words are often annoying. And by often, I mean almost always. I'm pretty sure the only way to get away with inventing words is to time-travel to the sixties and get published back then. (If you can do that, please stop by my house in a little town called Jerseyville in the early eighties—and tell me not to wait until I'm almost forty write a book. As long as you're at it, tell me not to order the chicken during a power outage in Costa Rica.)
And now, here at the end, I can't help but think of all the amazing fantasy books I've read, virtually all of it secondary world fantasy, with nary a single naughty word. Are things changing? Are we getting lazy in our writing? I fucking hope not.
Bio: Michael R. Fletcher lives in Toronto with his stunningly gorgeous wife and their daughter, the Centre of the Universe—who apparently thinks she can live entirely off fig newtons. His 2 ½ year old daughter was recently quoted as saying, I'm too fucking cute! It's possible he swears a little too often. Fuelled by hugs, red wine, and death metal, he somehow managed to rein in his ADD long enough to write 88, a science fiction novel. He recently finished writing Beyond Redemption, a truly messed up dark fantasy novel about manifest delusion, and is trying to work up the nerve to send it to his publisher. He probably needs another hug.
(Thanks, Mike. And might I add, Mike's use of the 'F' word in 88 is powerfully done and not overly used. If you want a great SF novel to read, I recommend it highly. You can buy it here.)
Next Post: The ABC's of How NOT to Write Speculative Fiction - 'A' is for Action: This is my first helpful post featuring writing tips—what not to do—based on my twenty+ years experience as an editor with On Spec Magazine. If you're a 'pro', please feel free to contribute and comment, if you're experienced but are still receiving the occasional rejection slip, these pointers may show you why, if you're relatively new to writing, these are the pitfalls to avoid.