Tuesday, September 1, 2015

To Curse or Not to Curse, by Carla Damron

I’ve got a potty mouth. Well, not me exactly, but several of my favorite characters. My editor has asked  me to tone down the language in my upcoming novel, THE STONE NECKLACE. He went so far as to COUNT the number of times I dropped the f-bomb. (It wasn’t me, I swear. It was my character Phillip. He just talks that way. And sometimes Sandy. And yeah, Elliott, too … okay, maybe it is me.)

I thought editing out the bad language wouldn’t be that big a deal, but it’s actually been quite a challenge. For some situations, one NEEDS a special word, and—trust me—that word isn’t “fudge.”

Yet I know my editor’s correct. If I want to widen my audience, I need to be careful not to alienate anyone over a word or two. (Or thirty-seven …).  My relationship with new readers is more important than any expletive I have in my text. I don’t want to offend anyone—or at least, if I do offend someone, it should be about something more substantive than SH*T.

Still, here’s my challenge: how do I accurately portray an on-the-streets, drug using, bad-guy (notice I didn’t use bada**) dude without having him speak the words I know he’d use?

For some characters, I can spice up their language more creatively. One character might actually say “fudge,” eyebrows lifted, so that we all know what she really means. The son of the car crash victim could say “damn” instead of a harsher word. (Is “damn” okay? After all, Rhett Butler said it. A question for my editor.)

But that one guy… he’s a puzzle. He wouldn’t have a big vocabulary. He has no college education that would have provided him with effective synonyms. I can’t imagine him using “monkey flunker” in any conversation.

One thing he would use, though, is silence. His cold stare night be more effective than a dozen firetruck-you’s. His sausage thick finger pointed at my protagonist could be more terrifying than any curse words he might care to utter.  His looming presence casts quite a shadow over the novel; I can make use of that in place of his salty vocabulary. It could work.   

Problem solved? Not quite. I still find a few places—not many—where it’s hard to come up with a word to replace the expletive without losing the effect.  I must mull. And mull some more.

Oh, fudge.


  1. Sometimes less is more. Maybe he could flip the bird instead of using language. Or maybe he could curse a few times early in the book, which would leave the impression he was cursing throughout the piece.

  2. I think this is a problem a lot of us have, and we all have different ways of tackling it, depending upon the characters and our own approaches to the problem.

    Some of my characters have learned to just keep their mouths shut, since cussing out rival gang members or prison guards tend to have negative consequences, and they learn quickly to evaluate a situation before they say anything.

    There's the street concept of "respect," too. If you don't know a person, you don't stare at him/her, make eye contact or cuss. Unless you're deliberately provoking an altercation.

    Too much cussing & you call into question a character's mental health status. And poverty of vocabulary.

    One simple way of dealing with it, which of course is not appropriate for all characters, is an incomplete, "What the..." trailing off wordlessly.

    When we write dialog, we don't include all the "uh...hmmm...y'know..." etc. Perhaps an occasional one where it adds to the dialog, but nothing like people actually use those terms. We can do the same with profanity.

    But when we invent a character who really does have a distinct poverty of vocabulary and who is in a setting where profanity is common and accepted (I think of the years I spent working in a prison) it can be a challenge.

    When I switched jobs to an alternative high school, I'd hound the kids about their habits of using offensive words and expressions. When they'd object, I'd tell them that the only places that was acceptable were prisons and mental hospitals, and if they planned to spend their lives there, let me know, and I'd try to stop nagging them. Otherwise, though, I'd keep pointing it out to them so they could recognize it and make a choice about how they wanted to be perceived.

  3. Very good points. I especially like "What the ..." that would work in several places!

  4. That character MUST say a decent number of "F's". Just must.
    Guess you could replace it with "friggin'" here or there.
    Can't imagine losing readers over a few F words used appropriately... but that's coming from someone who uses the word! Good luck!

  5. Carla, my books take place in a small town where I don't have hardened criminals. But there are some nasty guys who cuss, and even my good guys will occasionally use shit, damn, bitch or hell, but because I find the F word so offensive, I don't use it in my books. I might say the character was cussing, etc. but if I used that word or some others I can think of, I know it would offend some readers who don't like hearing or reading them. That doesn't mean I stop reading good books that do have characters who use those words, and it doesn't bother me at all. It's just that I'd have trouble saying or writing them myself. I do use the word dammit, when I'm really upset about something, but that's when I make a stupid mistake and not to others. So did my mother occasionally.

  6. Did you know this is how we got the idea of the silent stoic cowboy? The movie studios woudln't allow swearing, and the writers wanted to be true to the time and the language.

  7. Who's the narrator? If the character who's f-bombing is being observed/heard by another person, we wouldn't have to hear the words every time to understand what's been said. You could replace some of his f%^king dialogue with the narrator's reaction to it.

  8. Carla, can you use dashes? f--, for example? Then your readers can fill in the blanks?
    I have a manuscript that is basically a cozy and one very unexpected character drops a, er, firetruck. Which I thought was funny and showed a side of this hyper-pulled together character that needed airing. My editor told me that if I left it in, I'd disqualify myself from several publishers.
    Decisions, decisions, indeed.

  9. I look forward to reading THE STONE NECKLACE to find out how you solve the problem, Carla.

    Cindy, thank you for the history lesson about the stoic cowboy. I wondered how that originated because I grew up near several cowboys and don't remember that they were "silent."

  10. I like the Fantastic Mr. Fox solution: What the Cuss?!


    Of course it doesn't sound like your character would have seen the film.